It’s the Only Way

It’s an odd Easter, to be sure!  Instead of cramming into church with our friends and family, we are scattered on sofas and at tables on laptops, phones, and television screens.  The format of our observance may have changed, but the core message has not.  With that in mind, the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights gathered virtually to share the good news as is found in Jeremiah 31 and John 20:1-18.

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

Note that there is a link to the YouTube broadcast of the entire worship service posted at the end of this blog.

Have you heard about The Carnegie Club?  I don’t mean the ritzy nightclub in New York City, where a $40 cover charge and two drink minimum guarantees you the chance to smoke cigars and listen to folks sing covers of old Frank Sinatra tunes.

No, I’m talking about The Carnegie Club that is based at Skibo castle in Dornoch Scotland.  It’s one of the most exclusive venues in the world, founded, as one might suspect, by Andrew Carnegie – one of the richest people in the history of people.  Here, members can truly retreat and relax as they play golf, go horseback riding through the Scottish moors, shoot skeet, and learn falconry.  All this can be had for a one-time joining fee of $35,000 and membership dues that are currently approximately $11,000 per year.

Maybe you’d like something a little more urban and sophisticated.  If that’s the case, let me recommend the 1930’s Club in Milan, Italy.  This exclusive watering hole has no phone, no published address, and the only way in is through a secret door in a rather humdrum bar on the first floor.  If you make it through that entry, you’ll be greeted by a doorman who will want to see your membership card, which contains features that are only visible under ultraviolet light.  For high-end networking and outrageous cocktails, the 1930’s Club is the place to be.

And maybe you don’t care about that.  Maybe you’re thinking about how to get into the college that is best for you; maybe in this time of social distancing you’re just thinking about that sign at Kennywood that tells you that anyone can ride the Swing Shot as long as they are 48” tall.

Do you know that feeling of wanting to belong?  I think that all of us, deep down, want to know that we’re “in”.  That we’ve got what it takes, somehow, to get through the process and into the club – whatever the club might be.  We long to know that we are special enough to belong.

If that idea of membership and exclusivity resonates with you, well, I’m afraid that you might not like this sermon very much.

I think I’m not stretching it when I say that for many of us, being human means that we want to earn our way, to deserve special treatment, or to achieve some level of recognition.  We see that as a hallmark of some of the world’s great religions.  There’s a tradition within Judaism that the world itself exists because there are 36 Lamed Vavniks – individuals who are themselves so righteous and holy that they ensure the survival of the planet.  There is the Hindu notion of samsara, which is a way of describing reincarnation, where a soul is born and reborn into the mortal world a number of times, each time achieving growth and new levels of maturity in its own karma.  And, of course, there are certain branches of Christianity that seem to indicate that while anyone can get into heaven, there’s a special class of people who have been, somehow, superior believers.  Most of the rest of us buy into this hierarchical notion when we say things like, “Well, I mean, I’m no saint, but for crying out loud, Karen, even I know better than to be like him…”

All of these exclusive clubs and hierarchical religious notions are problematic for a number of reasons, but particularly more so today, as we celebrate Easter Sunday.  I don’t have to tell you what Easter is – it’s the high holy day of the Christian faith.  It’s our “super bowl” – or, most years, anyway.  It is the festival of the resurrection of our Lord.

And here’s the thing about resurrection – there is only one simple requirement.  There’s not a lot of mystery here – if you’re gonna have a resurrection, there is one thing that you can’t do without: death.  If you want to participate in a resurrection, you’ve got to be dead. There are simply no exceptions to that rule.

And we hate that.

We hate that because a) I don’t particularly want to die, and b) everybody dies – what’s so special about that?

It’s pretty plain and simple, as much as we don’t like it.  “I am the resurrection and the life”, says Jesus.  He invites us to follow him, learn from him, grow with him while we can; he calls us to love and serve our neighbors and to give what we can (as we discussed on Thursday night), but at the end of the day, to really get in on the biggest deal of all, we’ve got to die.  Not even Jesus can work a resurrection with somebody who isn’t dead.

And fundamentally, Christians teach that this is why Jesus came.  He came to bring hope to the hopeless and life to the lifeless.  To fundamentally initiate what he called “The Kingdom”.  A whole new manner of existence.

And because most of us don’t like contemplating death very long – our own or those of our beloved – we think about other reasons that Jesus might have come.  Maybe Jesus came so that you would clean up your act a little bit.  Maybe Jesus wants you to try a little harder at school or drink a little less or do something about that mess in your room.  Maybe Jesus came to reform the reformable or to rearrange the furniture of your life or to shore up something that has been in bad shape (like the sound system on these livestream broadcasts in recent weeks).

Theologian Robert Capon points out that we say those things, not because they’re true (because they are not), but because they are a little more acceptable to us than acknowledging that the fundamental work of Jesus was to “proclaim a kingdom that works only in the last, the lost, the least, and the little, not to set up a height-weight chart for the occupants of the heavenly Jerusalem.”[1]

The historical record is pretty clear.  Being called “The People of God” hasn’t ever done anybody much good.  Jeremiah was called to proclaim the Word of the Lord to a people who had already been defeated in war and carried off into exile and slavery.  Most of the book that bears his name is filled with news that is heavy and dispiriting, to say the least.

Except for these four brief chapters in the middle of Jeremiah.  They are called “the book of hope” by some, and that only goes to show you that hope is a relative thing.  In our reading for today, he tells them that the folks who survived the sword (yay) will find grace.  Wow, that is good news.  What a relief!

Except, the prophet continues, the relief will come in the wilderness.

What? You’ve got to be kidding, Jeremiah!  Who wants to go to the wilderness?  Everybody knows that the wilderness is the place of desolation, disease, and death.  The city is where it’s at – the wilderness is a chaotic, random place…

And then the prophet goes on to point out that Israel’s ability to survive as a people is rooted in – not the people’s ability to be better tomorrow than they were today, not the people’s spunk and stick-to-it-iveness, not the people’s ability to progress as moral and ethical creatures… their ability to survive rests solely on the basis of the Divine promise.  God looks at God’s people and says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love.”  The perseverance and commitment is not human in origin, but heavenly.  God’s faithfulness to the creation is noted and then there are five times where the word “shall” appears in connection with new birth and new life and new hope.

This new birth and new life and new hope comes to the People of God not when they are in Jerusalem or even in Babylon, but when they are sent into the depths of the isolating wilderness and desolation.

And I’m here to tell you that it only gets worse with Jesus.  Jesus does not make it easy for people to follow him.  I have to tell you that many people whom I love dearly and respect greatly have left the Christian faith.  They read the gospel and they just can’t figure how it works out.

I don’t blame them.  The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – the things that we are here to proclaim as the central events of human history this morning – have made no apparent difference in the way that this world is running.  My friends want to know where God was when the COVID-19 virus mutated.  Couldn’t God have stopped that?, they say.  Where is God in the refugee camps, the carnage, the oppression, the inhumanity?  And, at the end of the day, I’m still dying.  We all get sick, and we all die.

Again, listen to Robert Capon:

It is not an easy Gospel to proclaim: it looks for all the world as if we are not only trying to sell a pig in a poke, but an invisible pig at that. The temptation, of course, is by hook or by crook to produce a visible pig for the world’s inspection to prove that trust in Jesus heals the sick, spares the endangered, fattens the wallet, or finds the lost keys.  But it does not. And it does not because the work of Jesus is not a transaction – not a repair job on the world as it is now, but an invitation of the world as it now is into the death out of which it rises only in him.[2]

On Thursday night I told you that the current state of the world invites us to imagine a new way of being Christian. That’s all we have, beloved – our imagination.  We don’t know what is coming, and we don’t always know how to make sense out of what is – we can only carry on in wild, reckless hope that Jesus is who he said he was and who his best friends found him to be.

Mary Magdalene in the Garden, Sieger Koder

I can’t prove this idea of resurrection to you.  We have some great songs about it, and there are a lot of folks more eloquent than I who’ve spoken about it over the last two thousand years.  But at the end of the day – and, frankly, at the end of our lives – we’re simply going to have to step forward in imagination and trust.  The idea that the God who has been with me every step of my way in this world has promised to be with me in richer, deeper, more complete ways in the next – well, that’s an image I want to get in on.

For some of you, these are frightening times.  For many of us, they are at best irritating, if not alarming.  Where do I get off proclaiming that Jesus is risen and, in the words of the old hymn, “the strife is o’er, the battle done”?

All I can say, beloved, is that if we walk together, I promise you that we will see some signs of hope, some glimpses of Divine love, some evidence of Holy intent, some places where the Splendor of heaven breaks into this sphere.

It’s not a club, my friends. It’s a story. It is the best story I know.  And at the end of the day, we all have to choose a story by which to live – and in which we’ll die.

I choose Jesus.

More to the point, I am grateful that Jesus has chosen me. I believe that Jesus has chosen each of us.  His is the only story that makes any sense to me.  And so if you’ll come, too, we can move forward one day at a time in trust and hope.  There’s no annual fee.  There’s no membership requirement.  Trust him.  Thanks be to God, there’s nothing else to do.  Amen.

[1] Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Judgment (Eerdmans, 1989) pp. 175-176.

[2] The Parables of Judgment, pp. 179-180.

Below is the entire worship service from Easter Sunday. https://youtu.be/G7ukXYxNF8c

It Just Isn’t Right

The Saints of the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights like churches around the world, gathered virtually on the Fifth Sunday of Lent (March 29) this year.  We considered the interaction that Jesus had with the people of Bethany as described in John 11:1-44, and sought to make sense of the call to unbind Lazarus in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

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

Not too long ago (although, to be honest, any time that includes me being out in my car and making visits seems like an awfully long time ago) when the COVID 19 virus was just beginning to hit the USA, I happened to be out, and I happened to be wearing my clerical collar. A woman I’d never seen before stopped me and said, “Excuse me, are you a chaplain?”

I replied that I was a pastor, and asked if I could help.

She looked down, and then engaged my eyes, and as her own eyes filled with tears she said, “I just have a quick question, if that’s OK.”

I assured her that it was more than OK.  She looked toward the doors of the nearby hospital, and continued, “Well, Pastor, it’s just this… I mean, why did God send this?  Why is God doing this? Why must I suffer like this?”

My first response was to scold her (with a smile): “You said a quick question, and I’ve been working an answer to that one for 40 years…”  But then I continued. I must confess that in retrospect, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with my off-the-cuff answer, and I wish she were present this morning.

You may not be a pastor, but I suspect that you’ve heard this question in the past couple of weeks.

Unfortunately, there has been no shortage of those who purport to speak on the Lord’s behalf these days.  Perhaps you’ve run across one of the dozens of news stories reporting that a famous clergyperson has alleged that the Almighty has visited the globe with this virus because God is so angry with humans for one of a dozen reasons.  Interestingly enough, it appears as though these men (and yes, they are mostly men) are pretty well-convinced that God happens to hate all of the same people and things that they hate: those who have sought or provided abortions, sexual and gender minorities (and those who support them), immigrants, environmentalists, or who knows what else?

As if God is known for whom or for what God hates.  As if God’s primary means of self-revelation is to destroy those things that God hates.

I want to distance myself in every possible way – socially, theologically, spiritually – from a theology that is presumptive enough to offer a rationale for this virus based on who or what God hates.  Such conversation is simply incompatible with the Divine love that I see cascading in and through the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth.

Let’s look at the gospel.  This is a well-known story, isn’t it?  What’s happening here?

There has been a death in the village.  And, unfortunately, not just any death, but a tragic death.  Lazarus has died an untimely death.  He has left behind him two sisters – women who were evidently unmarried, and thus dependent on their brother in all sorts of ways.  His sisters are now apparently without their father, without husbands or sons, and now without a brother.  There is no man in their life on whom they can rely to conduct business on their behalf, to protect them, to provide for them in the midst of this society that is incredibly gender-biased and sexist.  The road ahead of Mary and Martha would seem to be filled with one barrier after another now that they are essentially alone.

Recognizing their plight, the village has stopped everything and has gathered in shared grief.  There is a heaviness and a despair that seems to pervade everything.

I find this passage interesting because it not only tells us what’s happening, but it also lets us in on how people are feeling.  There is a lot of emotional language in John 11.  What are people feeling?

Let’s start with the easy one.  Lazarus is, as they say, feeling no pain.  He’s dead.  He’s totally and completely disconnected from the situation. The barrier between Lazarus and everyone else seems impenetrable.  He is wrapped up, bound up, locked up in a grave.

Mary and Martha are, as we have said, stricken with grief.  John says that when Jesus strolled into town they fell at his feet.  They are bound up just as tightly as was Lazarus – only theirs are not graveclothes, but grieving clothes.  They are not only sad, they appear to have some anger:  “If YOU HAD BEEN HERE, Jesus, my brother wouldn’t have died…” Martha and Mary are filled, as we might expect, with intense emotions.

The townspeople – our translation calls them “the Jews” – were also clearly saddened by the loss of Lazarus.  But more than that, they seem to share in the sisters’ frustration and disappointment.  “This man opened the eyes of the blind!  We thought surely he could keep his friend from dying.”  They saw Jesus as a miracle worker – a hero of sorts.  And now, he had not only let his friends down, he had let his public down.  There was not going to be a show, they thought.  Jesus could have done something, but he didn’t. 

Jesus Wept (James Tissot between 1886-1894)

And Jesus himself – how does he feel?  Well, we can start with an easy one.  You may know this story as the answer to a trivia question:  “What’s the shortest verse in the Bible?”  The answer is here:  John 11:35, “Jesus wept.”  His friend had died, and he was sad.  This passage speaks to that in several places.  In both verses 33 and 38, we find that Jesus was “deeply moved” in his spirit, and that he was troubled.  There’s a word that’s repeated in each of these verses: embriaomai. It’s a Greek word that initially was used to describe the snorting of horses.  You’ve seen that – when a horse lets out some sort of involuntary snort that, if you’re not paying attention, can really surprise you.  This is what embriaomai was first used to describe, but as time passed the word came to be understood as a deep response to a strong and powerful emotion – a kind of inarticulate groaning or sighing.  And interestingly enough, it carries with it a sense of anger. 

My hunch is that Jesus was frustrated – grieving, saddened, and angry that things were so wrong.  Lazarus’ death was, for Jesus, an intensely personal example of the reason for which he had come into the world: to be the resurrection and the life, that all who believe in him even though they die, they might live.  Jesus had come, according to the gospel, in response to all of the deaths in the world, and now, here, he has to look one particular death square in the eye.

And what does Jesus DO?  There are at least four verbs here worth talking about.  Jesus becomes disturbed or frustrated.  Jesus weeps.  Jesus prays.  And finally, Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb and orders him to be unbound.  Jesus brings resurrection to Lazarus, his family, and that community.

Why?

What I’m asking is this: why does Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead?  I want to emphasize that he doesn’t do it for the reasons that I would do it.  He doesn’t do it because he loves Lazarus, and he doesn’t do it because he’s worried about what might happen to Mary and Martha without a man around the house.  He doesn’t do it in order to delight his friends and give them some sort of a happy reunion – even though his own emotional connection makes it clear that this would make bring him joy, too.  And he surely doesn’t do it to sell tickets for his upcoming tour, because Jesus knows exactly where his road is leading.

Jesus is clear: he raises Lazarus for the exact same reason that he healed the blind man in the reading we shared last Sunday.  “Didn’t I tell you, Martha, that if you believed you would SEE THE GLORY OF GOD?”    Why does Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead?  So that people would believe that Jesus was sent from God. So that people would pay attention to him, not as some sort of a miracle worker or magician (“for my next trick…”) – but so that people would know that God had not forgotten the promise to send a deliverer, a redeemer, a savior.

Another question: what’s the good news for us here?  What do we learn, where can we grow, from participating in this scripture today?

I, for one, am fascinated by the frustration and anger and weeping of Jesus. That involuntary “arghhhhhh” that he lets out before he bursts into tears.  What is this about?  I mean, Jesus knew that he could raise Lazarus.

This is what it reminded me of.  What was Jesus’ job, do you think, before he started his ministry?  Well, most translations tell us that his dad, Joseph, was a carpenter.  The Greek word for that, tekton, is a little broader.  A tekton is someone who makes things.  In that part of the world, most of the making was done with stone – wood was in relatively short supply. 

At any rate, Jesus, presumably, went into the family business as a young adult.  So what did he do?  He made things.  He put things together.

Did you ever make something, and it turned out just right?  You assembled it, glued it, stained it, whatever, and it was just perfect.  It worked beautifully.  And then someone did something to mess it up.  Maybe you made the perfect birthday cake and you put it on the counter and the next person into the kitchen opened a cupboard and knocked the salt and pepper shakers right into the middle of your cake. Maybe you just finished shoveling the walk and clearing a path out and here comes the plow BOOM covering your entryway with three feet of snow and ice.  Maybe you just finished the perfect term paper on the computer but before you hit the “save” button, your sister decides that she needs to download an entire season of her favorite show at the same time that your dad is streaming a work call…and the internet fails.  What is your response in these situations? Arghhhhh! Embriaomai!!! 

Do you remember how John’s gospel opens?  How he talks about Jesus?  “He [Jesus] was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”  Do you see!  Jesus wasn’t just Lazarus’ friend – he was Lazarus’ maker!  And something had messed up his Lazarus!  Doesn’t that just tick you off when you go to all the trouble of creating a universe and making people and calling them your own special children and then someone goes and screws it up!  Man, I hate that!  And clearly, Jesus did too.

Beloved, the good news of the gospel is this: Jesus reveals the heart of God as he is frustrated and saddened by things that don’t work right.  What does that mean?  It means when Jesus see you weeping at the grave of one that you thought you could not live without, embriaomai!  When Jesus sees people fighting for breath on respirators, embriaomai! When Jesus  sees his beloved children, created for joy and generosity descending into hoarding and pettiness, embriaomai!

Beloved, we can and we will see the Glory of God.  Not because of our denomination, or ethnicity, or citizenship.  We will not, most likely, see the glory of God when everything in our lives works out just perfectly.  I am here to say that we are more likely to see the glory of God when we encounter the God who loves us enough to weep over the imperfections and the broken places of our lives.  The God who groans when he sees how stained we are with sin and how deeply the pain of the world has infected us.

So to you, un-named woman I met on the street: you know there is much in your life that is broken.  There are barriers between where you are now and God’s intentions for your life.  You may be held down by grief, you or someone you love may be trapped in a body that doesn’t work the way you wish it did, you may be watching a relationship you have cared about deeply wither away. Embriaomai!  That hurts!

People of God, wherever you are, will you join me in holding onto the truth that there is nothing in your life that is so broken that God cannot make you whole and use you to display God’s glory to the world around you?  Will you join me in proclaiming to the world that the grief and pain that so often enters our lives is not the final word?

The news today is not that God is so angry that the best idea God has is to send a virus that causes fear and indiscriminate death. That is a lie.  The news today is that wherever you are in the midst of this pandemic, you are not alone.  Yes, I know, you may feel alone.  You may be locked in your home, or even worse, a hospital bed.  You may be craving human contact and a return to whatever “normalcy” looks like for you.  The good news is that at this moment, God is present to and with you in the person of Jesus.   

This is what I want to do to end this sermon.  I want to pray that we might in fact find some display of God’s glory in the face of grief and barriers. Beloved people of God, today let me encourage you to give your God the embriaomai places of your life.  Ask God to unbind him.  To unbind her.  To unbind you.  And let us, today, look for the glory of God.  And let us pray that we might believe it when we see it and even that we might be instruments of its appearing in our world.

Thanks be to God for the promise that no binding is eternal.  Amen.

If you’d like, you can watch the entire worship service on YouTube!  See the link below or paste this link https://youtu.be/A5GNldxpujc into your browser window.   

Fossils or Fingerprints?

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  These entries will help to describe that experience – the sermons return in September.

When I checked into the Salt Lake City hotel as our 8-state, 3745 mile road trip came to an end, the young woman said, “Wow, that sounds like an amazing time.  Was this like, a ‘bucket list’ item for you, or what?”

My first thought was, “Hey, kid, how old do I look to you, anyway? Do I LOOK like I’m close to needing to check items off my bucket list?”

But upon reflection, I realized that she was right.  There was a lot about this trip that was “bucket-list-able”.  And I’ve been thinking about the fact that I’ve buried a lot of friends who are younger than I am, and about my own sense of accomplishment at having to made it to age 59 after my mother’s death at age 58.  We mustn’t take these things for granted, friends.

Our trip began and ended in Salt Lake City, Utah (about 8 o’clock on this map). Proceeding as indicated, we visited portions of Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming (again), South Dakota (again), Nebraska, Wyoming (again), Colorado, and Utah. Amazing!

Having prefaced this entry with the above, it’s not a little ironic that the last real “stop” on our great adventure was the Dinosaur National Monument, which spans areas in both Colorado and Utah.  We spent the night at a campground on the Green River just a mile or two away from where Andrew Carnegie’s chief fossil collector, Earl Douglass, unearthed an incredible trove of bones belonging to such amazing creatures as the Apatosaurus that is still on display in the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood.  Between 1909 and 1924, he shipped more than 700,000 tons of bones and other materials back to Pittsburgh until finally, the museum decided that it had all of the Jurassic bones that it needed.

At the Dinosaur National Monument’s Quarry Exhibit.

Here’s the crazy thing: there are still more of them there – just sitting in the ground.  I mean, it’s crazy – walking down the path and seeing a giant bone protruding from the dirt.  Touch it.  Climb on it. We have more…  In fact, the Quarry Exhibit Hall is built right into the side of a hill, and visitors can see, exposed in the dirt, more than 1500 fossils. Walking along the trails of the Monument, we saw not only dinosaur bones, but fossils of other creatures including clams and some prehistoric dolphin-like fish.

The Quarry Exhibit Hall, built into the canyon itself.

Scientists have some theories about why there is such an immense quantity of bones at this particular site.  There were wetlands here at one time, and the thought is that during a time of drought, a large number of these creatures gathered looking for water.  Then an unexpected flood came and many dinosaurs perished at once.  Their bodies were swept to a certain location along the floodplain where they were covered with silt and sand and the process of fossilization began on this “logjam” of dinosaur bones.

The inside of the Exhibit Center contains a rock face displaying hundreds and hundreds of fossils.

You can say it: this is just a couple of old fossils in Utah.

Obviously, the easiest answer to the question “why are there so many bones here?” is this: “because so many animals died here.”  While the dinosaurs obviously didn’t vote for or decide to do this, they got overwhelmed by a flood or stuck in the mud and that was it.  They became fossils.

A dinosaur bone that we noticed on the trail in the Monument.

We knew we’d be seeing bones on this visit, but we were delighted to see something else – something even cooler, to my mind: a vast treasure trove of petroglyphs: etchings on the rock walls of these canyons that have been here for hundreds and probably thousands of years.  As we wandered through the park, we saw dozens of these markings – lizards, dancers, hunters, necklaces, and more.  Many of the sandstone faces of these cliffs are a darker hue on the outside – it’s called “sandstone varnish” – the wind and elements have apparently scorched them a deeper shade.  At some point between 200 AD and 1300 AD a group known as the Fremont People lived in this area.  Using sharpened rocks, they chiseled away at this varnish and left petroglyphs (carvings) and pictographs (paintings) on the walls.  While they are of great beauty and interest in and of themselves, what fascinates me even more is the fact that some of these pieces of art must have taken months or even years to complete.  Which means that someone in that community had the luxury of some free time – that not every second of every day was devoted to the same old grind of hunting and gathering, hunting and gathering.  This also tells me that those who left this art behind were doing more than simply waiting to become fossils themselves – they were leaving fingerprints all over this desert in the hopes that their peers and their children and grandchildren would find the land a little more hospitable, a little more welcoming, and a little more beautiful.

How many different images can you see in this single photo?

 

Many scientists believe that the dinosaurs’ closest living relatives are birds – like this Lark Sparrow that greeted me in the morning.

Fortunately, this is not a dinosaur.

This formation has been named “Turtle Rock” Can you see it?

A panoramic shot of the Green River. our campground is front and center.

So here’s the deal, beloved, as I conclude this part of the sabbatical.  Each of us, sooner or later, has the opportunity to become a fossil. One day, the folks will stand around me in a circle, throw dirt on my face, and then go back to church and eat some cheesy potatoes and ham.  There’s nothing I can do about that – I’m no better off than those bones in the Carnegie Museum in terms of my earthly mortality.

But I can choose to use the time I’ve been given to leave my fingerprints in places that will, I hope and pray, lead to beauty and joy and reflection; I can work to shape the environment so that my child and grandchildren will have more keenly developed senses of awe and wonder because I’ve walked these paths; I can be grateful for those moments of leisure and reflection that I’ve enjoyed.  This is the difference between fossils and fingerprints: a fossil says, essentially, “Well, I made it this far, and then I died.”  Fingerprints say, “While I was here, I did this.  And then I went on to somewhere else, and did something else.”

I am trying to be grateful, and I am trying to remember that I am still on my way.  And I challenge you to be the same.  Think about your own “bucket list” – what is something you can do todaythat will allow you to resist the rush towards fossilization and give you the chance to shape someone’s world with hope or beauty or joy?  Do it.

Since I’m on Sabbatical, and I’ve been thinking and reflecting in a different way, I’m remembering poetry that has shaped me.  One work that has shaped me for several decades – and in fact has been clipped and rides inside my Bible everywhere I go – is by Scott Cairns.  Listen, and remember:

Imperative

The thing to remember is how

tentative all of this really is.

You could wake up dead.

 

Or the woman you love

could decide you’re ugly.

Maybe she’ll finally give up

trying to ignore the way

you floss your teeth as you

watch television.  All I’m saying

is that there are no sure things here.

 

I mean, you’ll probably wake up alive,

and she’ll probably keep putting off

any actual decision about your looks.

Could be she’ll be glad your teeth

are so clean.  The morning could

be full of all the love and kindness

you need.  Just don’t go thinking

you deserve any of it.

– from philokalia, ©2002 by Scott Cairns

We ended our travels by sharing dinner with former CHUP organist Alec Chapman and his wife, Rachel. What a joy to reconnect – undeserved – but treasured!

Disorderly Conduct

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  These entries will help to describe that experience – the sermons return in September.

The Custer National Cemetery in Montana (a place where current and former servicemen are buried).

I suspect that I spend more time in cemeteries than most folks.  Some of that may be occupationally-related.  I’m sure that I go to more funerals than the average American. And if I helped teach you to drive, you will remember that some of the early lessons take place in the graveyard (not only does it give me a great  context to talk about the dangers of inattentive driving, it’s also a pretty safe bet that no pedestrians will get hurt!).  If you were in the Youth Group with me, you might have taken a field trip to the cemetery during conversations about death.

In some way, I like cemeteries.  They are quiet and peaceful places that can offer me the chance to think about what’s important, to re-align my priorities, and to focus on developing a sense of gratitude in life. They are often places of great beauty – there is often elaborate sculpture and, believe it or not, there are fine opportunities for bird-watching on these hallowed grounds.

And yet their quietness and their beauty belies the intrusiveness of death.  I feel that incongruence more in military cemeteries than anywhere else. Young men and women who have died prematurely, violently, and painfully might be startled to find their final resting places to be neat diagonal rows of crisp white markers on a perfectly manicured lawn. You must admit: it’s incongruous to say the least.

On June 18, I had the chance to visit a military cemetery that was stunning in all the ways that it was not neat, crisp, or manicured.  Sharon and I visited the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana.  Many Euro-Americans know this as the site of “Custer’s Last Stand”, while Native Americans remember this place as the Battle of Greasy Grass.  On a couple of miserably hot days in June of 1876, more than 250 solders, translators, and other people related to the army of the United States were killed by an assembly of several thousand Lakota and Cheyenne warriors.  This was, in many respects, emblematic of the armed conflict between Native Americans and their efforts to defend their way of life (particularly on the Great Plains) and European-Americans and the doctrine of “Manifest Destiny” that propelled them/us to take possession of the whole of North America.

To say that it was messy would be an understatement.  For starters, just eight years prior to this event, the US Government had signed a treaty with the Lakota, Cheyenne, and other tribes in Fort Laramie, Wyoming. In fact, Lt. Col. George Custer himself had said in 1869, “I will never harm the Cheyenne again.  I will never point my gun at a Cheyenne again.  I will never kill another Cheyenne.”

But not long after the Treaty of Fort Laramie was signed, someone discovered gold in the Black Hills, which by treaty belonged to the Indian Nations.  When the cry of “there’s GOLD in them thar hills” went out, thousands of eager and greedy settlers moved into the Indian land in direct violation of the treaty.  To be fair, for a time the US Army tried to keep them out, but, well, you’ve seen Wal-Mart on Black Friday.  It’s what we do.  The Native Americans got tired of these incursions, and so they began making raids on those who infringed on their domain.  There was inter-tribal conflict as well – the Crow, for instance, wanted to get the Cheyenne and the Arapaho off “their” land, and so Crow and Arikara Indians cooperated with Custer and the 7thCavalry.  And, at the end of the day, almost 300 white soldiers and their allies lay dead alongside of 60 – 100 Indian warriors.  Because the Indians were victorious in the battle, they had the opportunity to remove their dead and honor their bodies in traditional ways. Three days after the battle, US troops gained access to the battlefield and hastily buried Custer and his soldiers in shallow graves where they fell.  In 1890, the US Army erected 249 white headstone markers all across the battlefield to show where the soldiers had died, and, in 1999, the National Park Service began to install red granite markers at places where there were known Cheyenne and Lakota casualties.

Stones mark the places where Custer and many of his men were killed

The countryside is strewn with such markers indicating the intrusiveness and disorderliness of death.

My point is this: nobody’s hands were clean.  You can read volumes about what happened, but this is what struck me about the day that George Armstrong Custer clashed with Sitting Bull, Lame White Man, Red Feather, and other Indian warriors: the arrangement of the grave markers is a telling reminder of the fact that death and violence are not neat, never orderly, and by no means beautiful.  The monument along that ridge in Montana reminded me that too often our own conflicts turn deadly when we allow greed and pride to rule the day, when we can’t be trusted to keep our word, and when we want what the other person has more than we respect life.  It was sobering for me to walk amongst those hills and see another, and another, and another death – not manicured, not tidied up – but strewn across a landscape that will forever bear those scars.  I am grateful for the ways that the US Park Rangers helped me to understand some of what had happened in that June so many years ago, and I am also grateful for the way that the design of these memorials themselves helps me to remember not only the disorderly and violent ways that we so often choose, but also the opportunities that each of us has to seek peace and life.

A sculpture marking the memorial to the Plains Indians who fought here.

Wisdom from the past…may it guide our future.

We started the day in the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, which straddles the border between Wyoming and Montana.

The Canyon is home to a refuge for wild mustangs!

After looking at the water so long, you KNOW we had to get up close and personal!

Crossing the Bighorn Mountain range at an elevation of close to 10,000 feet. Yep, it was cold!

It was a great day for spotting moose, though!

And we saw many, many Prairie Dog “Villages”!

I Used To Live Here

This week marks the official beginning of a wonderful opportunity for me: I have been granted a period of sabbatical leave from the work I’ve been doing as the Pastor of the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights.  From Memorial Day through Labor Day, 2019, I am not only excused from my regular duties but positively immersed in a wave of new experiences and opportunities.  All of this in the hope and expectation that time away will provide both me and the congregation with renewal and refreshment in order that the next season of ministry will be marked by vitality and joy.

If you’ve been following this blog in the hopes of reading or hearing sermons, well, you’ll want to take a break for a few months.  I hope you’ll come back in September!  However, I invite you all to come with me as I wander into some new – and familiar – places in the hopes of engaging the Holy and the Wonder in these experiences.

This sabbatical experience will be framed by a couple of long weekends in the community in which I was primarily raised: Wilmington DE.  Memorial Day and Labor Day will find us in the place where I used to live.  My folks moved here when I was 3 years old, and for the next 15 years this was the place where I learned to ride bikes, play baseball and the trombone, make friends, grow in faith and community, drive, lead, fish, and so much more.  I graduated from Concord High School in 1978, went to college in Western PA, and have not really lived here since then.

And this is a frustrating thing: I am from here.  I know – or, more precisely, I knew these roads.  And yet as I am invited to visit with and chauffeur people around this place, I am irritated and disappointed…because the roads are not as I remember them.  There are new buildings, and the landscape has changed.  I am frustrated with myself, because as I feel lost I think, “I ought to know this.  I’ve been here.  I used to live here, for crying out loud.”  And I am irked by those who have come in and changed this place that was a comfortable and predictable environment.

And if you were to speak with me rationally, you would say, “Oh, give it a break, Dave.  It’s not 1978 anymore.  The world changes.  Life happens.  Get with the times.”  And, of course, you’d be right.

And yet, as I so often do, I wonder if there is a deeper application to this feeling.

I have a friend who is very ill.  Her body – once a dear friend, comfortable and hospitable and useful – now seems to be betraying her.  It’s not doing what it used to; it’s not behaving as it should.  And so in addition to the discomfort of the symptoms she is feeling, she is disquieted at finding herself in a place where she’d prefer not to be.

We are staying with my mother-in-law, a widow of less than a year.  On a July day last year, her landscape was bulldozed in an unimaginably (to me, right now) painful way.  Her house looks the same, but her home is irrevocably changed.  And it’s frustrating in painful ways.

I know a man who was once full of rich faith in God.  He practiced this in church, and engaged in regular worship.  And then, for a number of reasons, he found himself away from the church (and, if he were truly honest, away from the faith) for a season.  And he’d like to be back now.  Except that while the congregation that he formerly attended is still standing, and still open, and even has a number of the same members – it’s not the same church.  It seems to him that maybe even God has changed.  Certainly his perspective of God has changed.  Maybe that’s a good thing.  But it’s surely a confusing thing, on some days.  He has to find his way along a path that is different from the one that he knew.

I used to live here.  But the first word of that sentence – I – is not the same as he was in 1978.  Mostly, that’s a blessing.  And there are other people who live here now.  And that’s a fine thing.

And the final word of the sentence – here – is different as well, for a million reasons.  Again, mostly good.  I live somewhere else now, and I love it there.  But it’s not here.

In between the first and last words of the sentence is the verb – live.  One of the great things about time away from my regular life is the ability to catch up with folks who are in other places.  It has been a great joy to visit places that have been formative for me and share stories with those whose lives have been intertwined with mine.

Movie Night at Cokesbury Village! “On the Basis of Sex” is a great film.

Had a great visit with my brother, Tom, and his family!

So proud of my nieces Bethany and Rachel!

Putting in the annuals…

Coaching Sharon through the gardening thing… Sabbatical is about everyone learning new things!

We are blessed to be able to do this with Mom!

Breakfast with my niece Sarah – crab benedict!

This room provided some of my most meaningful encounters of the Holy… confirmation, ordination, marriage, the baptism of our daughter, funerals…

“The Burning Bush” at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Delaware

And as I near the end of my 58th year I am aware of the fact that as my dad used to say, “Nobody gets out of this place alive.”  I’m not usually a “go to the cemetery” person, but it was an honor and a privilege to visit the graves of some of the most amazing folks I’ve known.  As I mentioned, Sharon’s dad died in July 2018.  My own father died about ten years prior to that, and my mother in 1990.  We also were able to see the marker for my nephew, Ben, who died in 2017.  Taking this time to reflect on the meaning of their lives helped me to frame the expectations for my own.

My hope for the days, weeks, and months to come is that the practice of sabbatical will invite me to consider what it means to be an “I” who finds himself “here” – wherever here is.  And I am deeply grateful for the ways that I have been launched on this journey; for those who gave me advice as I was starting and along the way; and for those who are present to me as I seek to be faithful in the walk of today and share in the hope that is to come.

One most best frameworks for this hope is in a song called “Be With You”.  I invite you to wander in that now.

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.

You Call This GOOD News?

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. Ash Wednesday (March 6, 2019), brought us to reflect on the scripture that contains the longest teaching passage (and Jesus’ ‘farewell address’ to his followers) in that Gospel: Mark 13.  This was a timely reminder of our own mortality and the hope that we can share.

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

Titus Destroying Jerusalem, Wilhelm von Kaulbach, 1846

Some of you will remember my friend Ann, who lived to be nearly 101.  In the last few years of her life, this was her favorite text.  Every time we were together, she asked me to read the Gospel account of the day that Jesus left the temple and started to talk about the things that were going to happen before “the end of the world”.  And here’s the interesting thing: as I read it, she literally winced. This passage scared her to death. But she couldn’t stop thinking about it.

What do we do with this chapter?  One writer has said that Mark 13 is “a happy hunting ground for persons fascinated by the end of the world” that “figures prominently in books by doomsayers and in sermons by evangelists more interested in the next world than in this one. On the other hand, this chapter is largely ignored by pragmatists, activists, believers in progress, and all who dismiss preoccupation with the end of the world as a juvenile state of human development or an aberration of unbalanced minds.”[1]  Um, yeah. Tell us how you really feel, professor…

How do you hear Mark 13?  Does God’s word come to us through these verses?

Let’s take a look at some clues within the text itself.  Some of you are old enough to remember that when we started this sermon series on the Gospel of Mark, I said that one of the key features of this work was the fact there aren’t many long teaching passages here – it’s mostly what Jesus did. Well, chapter 13 contains the longest speech in the Gospel. And so Mark, writing to believers in Rome in the middle of the first century, decided that, of all the teachings Jesus gave – more than his community needed to hear the Sermon on the Mount or the parable of the Good Samaritan – they needed to hear thisteaching.  Hmmmm. We ought to pay attention.

Flevit Super Illam, Enrique Simonet, 1892

As the longest speech in the Gospel, it’s also Jesus’ “farewell” address to his followers in Mark.  Who is there on the hillside to hear it? Peter, Andrew, James, and John. According to Mark 1, who were Jesus’ first followers? Peter, Andrew, James, and John.  The four who have followed him, however imperfectly these last three years, are getting their final instructions.

In the Gospel of John, the “farewell speech” from Jesus is the wonderful encouragement, in chapters 13 – 17, to love one another.  In Matthew and Luke, there is the command to go and minister in Jesus’ name and in particular to include the Gentile community in baptism, teaching, and service. What’s the point of Mark 13?

Wars, and famines, and quakes…oh my!  Persecution, and idolatry, and suffering…oh my!  Those scenarios are all included, but they are not the prime object of Jesus’ concern in Mark 13.  In reality, most of Mark’s original readers were familiar with events like this. Remember, one of the reasons that Mark wrote the gospel was because the followers of Jesus in first century Rome were experiencing persecution and betrayal and suffering and death.  They had lived through the great famine during the reign of Claudius (also mentioned in Acts 11).  In 60 AD the Roman colony of Laodicea was destroyed by an earthquake. In 70 AD the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem and destroyed the town. In 79 AD Mt. Vesuvius erupted, destroying the city of Pompeii.

Wars, earthquakes, and persecution are not Jesus’ focus in Mark 13. They are the backdrop for what Jesus is saying.  I’d like to suggest that the main emphasis in Mark 13 is not the sound and light show that may or may not be going on at any given moment, but rather the promise that all of these things in history have an end.  That history itself has a direction.  The good news of the Gospel, here in Mark 13, is that at some point, Jesus the Christ will return to earth, and the Kingdom of God – the very topic of the Gospel of Mark – will be experienced in all its fulness.

And if that’s true – if Jesus is right about the fact that he is coming back – then it is in everyone’s best interest to be attentive.  It’s a small wonder, then, that throughout this chapter, Jesus warns his friends to be alert.  Various Bibles translate these imperatives differently, but at least eight times in the chapter we are warned to “take heed” or “beware” or “watch” or “stay awake”.

Can you see?  Could it be that this chapter is Mark’s bit of good news to a community that has struggled to keep the faith in the midst of persecution.  Almost everyone that Mark knows has experienced Jesus only as one who is absent – someone who was here, but who has now ascended – who has left the physical earth.  What is crystal clear about this passage is the notion that this Jesus – from whom we are currently separated – is going to return, and at that time, we will be fully present to him and to each other.

Some of us, it seems, will be here on earth, alive and well, when Jesus returns.  Many of us, of course, will have died.  No matter – in life and in death, we are his, and we will be with him.

It’s not too hard to get into a rip-roaring discussion on “the end of the world”.  Just throw out a few comments about wars and earthquakes and fireballs and before too long you can have people engaged and agitated. We talk about it as if it might or might not happen.

The Last Judgment, Michelangelo, c. 1536

Listen, beloved, the reality is this: the world will end, and it will end, all probability, sooner for me than it will for most of you in this room. But whether Jesus returns in bodily form during my lifetime or not, I can say with absolute certainty that I am dying, and that dying will be, for me, the end of this world. In that sense, every day is Ash Wednesday.

And my sense is that whereas I can usually scare up a pretty good conversation about the destruction of the cosmos and the signs and portents that Jesus seems to indicate here, it’s hard to have a serious conversation about our own deaths – even though, as I have said, it’s one thing of which we can be absolutely certain.

How are you preparing for your demise?  Does it scare you?  Jesus, anticipating his own death and talking to the disciples about what his followers might expect, stresses the fact that there is more to our lives and our deaths than we can see.  He surely doesn’t minimize the fact that the path can be difficult – but he does emphasize the truth that there is more to our endings than meets the eye.

Many of you will recognize the name of Lewis Carroll as the author of such wonderful children’s books as Alice in Wonderland.   Maybe you will know that Carroll’s real name was Charles Dodgson, and that he trained for the ministry and served as a deacon in the church for his entire life.  If you are familiar with Alice in Wonderland, you may know that it contains a wonderful statement of faith in which we are invited to consider our ability to live freely knowing that our deaths are only a part of the story.  Listen for the words of “The Lobster Quadrille” – and I will tell you that a “quadrille” is a formal dance wherein 8 people interact – much like square dancing.

The Lobster Quadrille, Charles Folkard, 1921

“Will you walk a little faster?”

Said a whiting to a snail,

“There’s a porpoise close behind us,

Treading on my tail.”

See how eagerly the lobsters

And the turtles all advance!

They are waiting on the shingle –

Will you come and join the dance?

So, will you, won’t you, won’t you,

Will you, won’t you join the dance?

Will you, won’t you, will you,

Won’t you, won’t you join the dance?

“You can really have no notion

How delightful it will be

When they take us up and throw us,

With the lobsters, out to sea!”

But the snail replied, “Too far, too far!”

And gave a look askance –

Said he thanked the whiting kindly,

But he would not join the dance.

So, would not, could not, would not,

Could not, would not join the dance.

Would not, could not, would not,

Could not, could not join the dance.

“What matters it how far we go?”

His scaly friend replied,

“There is another shore, you know,

Upon the other side.

The further off from England

The nearer is to France –

Then turn not pale, beloved snail,

But come and join the dance.

Will you, won’t you, will you,

Won’t you, will you join the dance?

Will you, won’t you, won’t you,

Will you, won’t you join the dance?[2]

The Good News of the Gospel is well-presented by Carroll – that there are two shores – one that we can see, and one that we know only through faith.  And the more we insist on staying close and connected to the one, the less we’ll be able to participate in the reality of the other.  We can face our own deaths without fear, knowing that the dance continues with structure, meaning, and purpose.

This doesn’t mean that we should throw up our hands and say that this life, and our impending deaths, don’t matter.  Far from it.  Jesus is clear in his farewell discourse that those of us who follow him are called to run the race as far as we are able, and to keep the course as best we can.  We are called to keep doing what he has left for us to do as well as we can for as long as we have.

Beloved, we don’t know – Jesus said that he didn’t know – when our experience of this life will end. We can have faith in the one who went for us as the ultimate sacrifice for sin and who has gone ahead of us and who has promised to return for us.  With the first-century Romans who heard Mark’s gospel and were sustained by it…with the monks in the middle ages who were convinced that civilization was collapsing all around them…with slaves who were carried to the Americas 400 years ago this year, and who were forced to live in inhuman conditions…with believers in countries around the world that have lived under persecution of other religions or the state… with the church of every age and every time, we can live expectantly –as though life is a dance – because Jesus has proven himself trustworthy. We can live hopefully, and look for signs and evidences of resurrection and life in the world each day.  We can live as those who find consolation, because we know that the griefs we bear will not last forever.  And most importantly, we can continue to invest our lives in God’s purposes, because although we cannot control earthquakes or wars or famines or floods, we can control our resolve to be his people.

I know, you have had people look at you in church and say, “Stay awake!”  But this time, it’s not your mother who is telling you.  It’s not the preacher.  It’s Jesus. And I think he means it.  The end is near.  We’ll get through it.  But until we get there, let’s stay awake, and let’s stay together.  Thanks be to God, Amen.

[1] LaMar Williamson, Interpretation Commentary on Mark (John Knox, 1983) pp. 235-236.

[2] Alice in Wonderland, chapter 11 <http://www.authorama.com/book/alice-in-wonderland.html&gt;