A sermon preached at St. Charles (MO) Presbyterian Church on 31 January 2016.
Prayer: Stir our hearts and minds, O Lord, so that we might become an extension of Your Word. Amen.
Today’s sermon – “The Divine Recycling Project” – is an early alert that Lent is coming and we need to get ready for this Season of Preparation. Mark 16:1-8 Listen for what the Spirit has to say to the church and its people!
1 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they could go and anoint Jesus’ dead body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they came to the tomb. 3 They were saying to each other, “Who’s going to roll the stone away from the entrance for us?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away. (And it was a very large stone!) 5 Going into the tomb, they saw a young man in a white robe seated on the right side; and they were startled. 6 But he said to them, “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here. Look, here’s the place where they laid him. 7 Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.” 8 Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. (NRSV)
[Scripture quotation from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.]
The abrupt ending of Mark’s Gospel leaves us wanting for more. “Overcome with terror and dread, [the women] fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” That’s it. It’s a wrap! Done. The End! What a strange way to end a Gospel account. So strange, in fact, two ancient authors appended alternate outcomes in the margins – one of them (labeled “The Shorter Ended of Mark”) is just just two sentences; the other, (“The Longer Ending…”) is12 verses in three paragraphs. The Shorter Ending reads as follows:
“They promptly reported all of the young man’s instructions to those who were with Peter. Afterward, through the work of his disciples, Jesus sent out, from the east to the west, the sacred and undying message of eternal salvation. Amen.”
Don’t you feel better now? You breathe a sigh of relief. It is the theological equivalent of “And they lived happily ever after.” But that is not the way that Mark ended his Gospel account.
I learned a new word as I was examining this abrupt ending for Mark’s Gospel – APOSIOPESIS. (This is not a word the you need to remember – it won’t likely come up in conversation at a wine and cheese party or in your 5th grader’s spelling homework.) Mark’s Gospel ends with an Aposiopesis – a literary device… the story is deliberately broken off and left unfinished, the ending to be supplied by the imagination of the reader
Mark left A Clue to help prime the pump of our imaginations: Chapter 1, verse 1: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son.”
It is not that Mark 1:1 is the “beginning” of the story Mark is going to tell; instead, Mark’s account of the good news about Jesus Christ is just the “beginning” of the story in which each of us is a chapter. Mark only began the story; he didn’t intend to finish it.
We want the story to end with the women running breathlessly to the other disciples and shout victoriously, “He is Risen. He is Risen indeed!” But, NO! They leave caught up in the very normal human emotion of fear and, so, they tell no one.
I can be like Peter, Andrew, James, John, and the others – who, because the story didn’t end in keeping with their hopes and dreams, were so caught up in frustration or depression that they couldn’t even motivate themselves to go to the tomb. Or I can be like the women – confronted such with a new and different reality which I can’t seem to wrap my head and heart around and thus skulk off in fear. Or I might even be like the young man that Mark introduces into his story, first at the time of Jesus’ arrest and now at the tomb. He shows up in the Garden of Gethsemane wrapped in a burial shroud which falls to the ground as he flees nakedly. Amazingly, he then shows up at the tomb wearing a white robe.
This young man is a literary device introduced by Mark to get his readers to reflect more deeply on the nature of the Christian life. I find myself regularly showing up where death threatens life… where hopes and dreams are cut short… where good and evil are held in tension in the midst of life… or where, to follow Jesus’ teachings, the poor are marginalized, disempowered, robbed of the abundant life and the justice that is rightfully theirs. Those circumstances strip me naked and send me away.
Actually, it is not so much that I show up to them as it is that they show up to me – every time I open go online, or read a newspaper, or watch TV, or go to the mall, or drive through town, or even when I come to church. When I face up to my fears, admit that I want to run away… admit that I am running away… when I admit my nakedness before God, then healing can begin, then salvation begins (healing is the root of the concept of salvation).
Once this Lenten healing (this divine recycling project) begins, I might just appear (metaphorically) in a white robe before those who are looking for something new and meaningful, but who are afraid… helping them find their way back to their own Galilee where Jesus will meet them.
Contemporary theologian Catherine Keller introduced me to the concept of a divine recycling project – or maybe the term ought to be re-purposing. Lent is a time to review our lives – our motivations, our commitments, and our actions. This review can help us identify where God is luring us toward more – more spiritual depth; more concerted action on behalf of the poor, the marginalized, the dispossessed; more concern for the stewardship of the earth. God might just be inviting me (and, perhaps, also inviting you) to recycle and/or re-purpose our lives.
The women went to the tomb, expecting to pay their final respect for Jesus. But their expectations were confounded. Instead of an old familiar ending they found a new beginning. That reversal of expectations terrified them at their core. The women went to the tomb and we go with them – straight into the den of death… and, in so doing we learn something about ourselves… something about Jesus… something about the mystery of life…
The season of Lent takes us to the tomb, which creates an anxiety within me! I am not sure that I want to go toward those scary places, those tender places within where I might have to encounter death and dying. The place where I may have to deal with my own mortality (or that of others) is not a place that I visit easily. I don’t want to hear about the death of an abused child; I don’t want to read about a soldier who will not be returning home; I don’t want to face a parent who is being eaten away with cancer.
I’d rather come to church and hear a “feel good” sermon, sing a few familiar gospel hymns, say a few hopeful prayers… but there is a part of me that knows that God is more likely to touch me where I hurt – where I hurt and/or where I hurt for and with others. For me, that is the hard part about getting ready for Lent – being ready to face my own anguish and the anguish of the world around me… And yet, that is where God seems to take up residence. And that is precisely where the Divine Recycling Project begins. Lenten preparation begins with the recognition that I must do something in the face of the troubles of the world – being present with somebody with their tears, acknowledging my own tears. …
My struggle is all about getting ready to face that inner part of me that isn’t as pretty as the face I usually turn toward the world and people around me. My preparation for the preparatory season of Lent consists mostly of praying, “God, can’t you make it easier. I’d rather not face the anxieties, the tears, the frustrations, the despairs of the world around me. And I certainly don’t want to face those crises within me. Can’t you do something about that and ease up a bit.” In my prayers I hear echoes of the Psalmist crying out, “How long, O Lord, how long?”
Like the women at the tomb, “overcome with fear and dread,” I’d rather flee and tell no one. But there is also inside of me, a divine nudge, an insistence, a calling that won’t let me go. In the midst of my fervent praying I sometimes pause to take a deep breath… and in that quiet moment I hear the echoes of a young man in a white robe, “He is not here. he is going ahead of you into Galilee”
not to some heavenly abode,
not to the rarified atmosphere of a mountain-top experience…
into the classroom where you study or office where you work
into your home, onto your street
into the broken relationship with some member of your family,
into your participation in community activities an
into those with whom you’d rather not be associated
The prospect of following Jesus back to my Galilee raises the basic question of the Lenten season: “Do I really want to take up my cross and follow him?” Can I live faithfully and wholesomely in a society of hierarchic structures which foster oppression, alienation, and brokenness? Am I willing to follow Jesus into his second career of re-ordering the reality of society so that kingdom priorities and values prevail… over against a world predominated by power and privilege and the malignant spirits which they generate? Does the prospect of cooperating with Jesus in creating a new world of compassion, peace, and justice create in me a passionate drive or a foreboding sense of insecurity and anxiety which shows itself as a paralyzing fear? Do I really trust the Gospel charge and “Fear not!”?
When we leave Sunday school and worship… when we leave the committee meeting or the pot luck luncheon… when Choir practice is over, the bulletin is printed, and the sermon is ready to be preached… then it depends on the willingness of each one of us – pastor, elder, member, visitor… our willingness to be changed, recycled, re-purposed – the kind of recycling and re-purposing that makes us over into the Way that Jesus lived and taught… the Way of God’s peace and justice.
The Lenten season confronts us with the empty tomb… the reality that Jesus is no longer physically with us… no longer able to snap his fingers and fix it for us. The empty tomb means that we must search for the risen Christ in the most unlikely of places – in ourselves, in others (particularly the least, the last, the lost, and the left out) and in our wounded and hurting world. Finding the risen Christ in these unlikely places is the core of the Grand Divine Recycling Project.
Lent is just around the corner. May each one of us get ourselves ready to be re-cycled and re-purposed during the coming Lenten season. Let’s get ready to get ready!
Prayer: Inviting God, instead of issuing great demands, you approach us as a lure, a nudge, a divine attraction. Interrupt our solemn preparations. Stir our hearts; call us out of our lethargy into the maelstrom of a hurting world. May your presence become truly experienced in the world through our faithful response. Amen.