Sunday, April 22, 2018

"Knowing Our Place in God's Good Creation." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Earth Sunday.


"Knowing Our Place in God's Good Creation"

Genesis 1 & 2; Psalm 23; John 10:10b-18 

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is traditionally Good Shepherd Sunday, and it’s also Earth Day. On the Fourth Sunday of Easter, our Gospel lesson is always taken from the tenth chapter of John’s gospel, in which Jesus speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd. So, this is a good morning to listen deeply for the Good Shepherd’s voice.
In this season of Eastertide, we are celebrating good news:  in raising Jesus from the dead, God has broken the power of sin and evil and delivered us from the way of death-- to life eternal and abundant.   We ponder what it means to live as Easter people… and what it means to live in the ways of God here and now, in a world where hunger, poverty, poor health, fear, violence, and injustice are daily realities for many of God’s people.  And today, especially, we are challenged to reflect on how we are called to live in relationship with God’s good creation.

            Back on the first Earth Day in 1970, some twenty million Americans rose up to proclaim their love for the earth. They took part in rallies, protests, and teach-ins. They demanded that our government take action to restore the environment.  Some of us are old enough to remember some of the reasons people got so energized about the environment.
            In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio was so fouled by industrial pollution that the river caught on fire. It had caught fire at least 13 times before. Close to home, Lake Erie was described in an article in Time magazine as a “cesspool” created by the waste of Detroit’s auto companies, Toledo’s steel mills, and the paper plants of Erie, Pennsylvania.
            Cities like Los Angeles and Pittsburgh were enveloped by heavy smog of lethal hydrocarbon haze.
            There were companies that buried toxic industrial waste. One of these sold a chemical waste site at Love Canal to a local school board for one dollar. They built an elementary school on it. There were miscarriages and birth defects and cancers in devastating numbers in the people who lived in the Love Canal area.

            The public outcry and pressure worked.   Congress passed the Clean Water Act, strengthened the Clean Air Act, and created the Environmental Protection Agency.
            Forty-eight years later, I think there is a renewed concern for the environment, as at least some Americans begin to understand the reality of climate change. It’s too late to stop global warming, but there are ways to live more “lightly, carefully, and gracefully” in the world.[1]
            So, what do our scriptures teach us about how to live as faithful stewards of the earth?
In Genesis chapter one, the scriptures tell us that when God created the world, God blessed it and called it very good.[2]   In fact, the word “good” is used seven times in this chapter. God loves what God has made. I think this passage invites us to cultivate a deep love for creation ourselves, and to nurture it in others.
God is revealed through the beauty, power, abundance, and mystery of the natural world.  Through wind and flame, water and wilderness, creatures and seasons, God is continually present and active in the world.
Human beings are endowed with reason   and given the responsibility to celebrate and care for Creation.  God’s first command to humanity was given to Adam in Genesis 2:15:  to care for the earth.  “Cultivate” and “protect” it.”
Genesis 1:28 tells us that God exhorts humans to “subdue” creation and have dominion over it. Some have interpreted this to mean that God has given human beings free reign over nature to do with it whatever we want.
Too many Christians think that we are the center of the universe and have twisted the gospel of Jesus Christ to mean that God is only interested in saving individual human souls--  rather than all of creation. 
Over the years, some have allowed the biblical texts to be twisted so that “dominion” came to mean “domination,”    and stewardship came to mean “exploitation.   Some have used this interpretation to justify using coal, oil, gas, and all natural resources for human profit.
But having “dominion” is not the same as “domination.” God entrusted the world to human beings. That trust and power is not meant to be abused, but exercised with great care.
In Genesis 2:15, God puts Adam into the garden to “till and keep it.” In other words, God wants us to take care of the garden of earth. 

In the original Hebrew, the verb abad means “to subject oneself as a servant” to God and Earth.  As biblical theologian Carol Newsome explains, “The image that Genesis has of the original human relationship to the environment is one that involves interaction but of a very modest sort. The forest of Eden is imagined as what we would call a permaculture, where human attention is part of the ecosystem, but of a nature rather like “light pruning and raking.”[3]
            The other verb, shamar, means “to keep, guard, observe, and give heed.” Other forms of shamar mean “to protect and save life,” and connote abstaining, refraining, and restraining oneself. According to biblical scholar Leah Schade, Adam is charged with guarding and protecting the garden, watching it with a close eye, and heeding--listening--to Earth. It is the same verb used for “keeping the Sabbath.”[4]   So, it seems that humans are to regard earth as holy, just as the seventh day is to be revered and respected as holy.[5]
The language in the original Hebrew connotes restraint and being a servant of the land.  So, the relationship between humans and creation is not one of domination and hierarchy, but of interconnectedness and service. 
During Eastertide, we celebrate the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. As early as the story of the flood later in Genesis, we are invited to see that this good news is not only for humankind--but for all of creation.  
Following the great flood, as the flood waters subside, God speaks with Noah and his sons, and makes a covenant with them, saying, “I am establishing my covenant with you and with your descendants after you”--that is, with all of humankind-- “and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you.”[6] 
God’s special relationship with humankind now extends to all of creation. To make sure we don’t miss the point, the story in Genesis repeats the inclusiveness of God’s covenant five more times in nine verses. The covenant is “between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all generations.” God describes the covenant as being “between me and the earth.” The covenant is “between me and you and every living creature of all flesh….the everlasting covenant [is] between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” Again, God speaks of “the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”[7]

Sociologists like Robert Bellah and theologians like Sally McFague keep reminding us of the degree to which the strong sense of community and the priority of  “the common good” that was foundational in the biblical and republican traditions are no longer shaping life in our society today.   McFague says that, although we continue to live in communities, our motto of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is usually interpreted these days in personal, individualistic ways, as, for instance, the right to carry a gun or the right to do as you choose, rather than our responsibilities for the welfare of the community.[8]

We don’t all agree on the environmental problem, or the scope or cause of the problem, much less the solution.  But there seems to be a growing consensus that current trends in growth and consumption are not sustainable.

When it comes to the environment, we need an alternative worldview.  We need alternative, faithful ways to know our place in Creation that are not naïve or simplistic.  For instance, recycling is a good thing to do, but efforts by individual and volunteer organizations to recycle will not save the planet. 
As one of my colleagues has said, the issue is too global,  too political,  too economically driven to be resolved by personal piety or individual good intentions.  The issue is ultimately theological—a matter of faith—because it raises the question, “Who owns this place?”[9]  

As persons of faith and as a faith community, our task is to imagine how the world would look if God really is ruling, and then to implement that vision—put it into action.
Theologian Robert Costanza states the challenge this way:  “The creation of a shared vision of a sustainable and desirable society, one that can provide permanent prosperity within the biophysical constraints of the real world in a way that is fair and equitable to all humanity, to other species, and to future generations.”[10]
The key elements here are sustainability and justice.  Sustainability is about recognizing that the earth’s resources are not unlimited, and that any global life-style created on the model of American consumption is suicidal.  Justice demands that we recognize the huge gap—which widens every year—between the haves and have-nots of the earth.

Sally McFague observes that the Greek word for “house is oikos, which is the root word for “economics,” for “ecology,” and for “ecumenicity.”   Thus, she suggests that caring for the earth is simply a matter of household economics, which leads her to offer three simple rules for our global household.
The first rule, as in any household, is take only your share.  All the cookies are not for you.    My share-- as your share-- is what is needed for a decent life:  food, shelter, medical care, and education.  There is enough for all--  if everybody would share.
Second, clean up after yourself.  The ring in the bathtub is yours.  That’s simple fairness. 
The third rule is:  keep the house in good repair for the children and grandchildren who will come after you.
Take only your share, clean up your own mess, and keep the house in good repair.   It’s a simple vision on a global scale.
But we can’t be simplistic and think this can happen through our good intentions as individuals.  We need a renewed worldview--  because the current one is not working. 
We need a world in which nations have the humility to confer and compromise...  and to sign and honor treaties to work together for global cooperation to work together on environmental and justice issues.  We need national leaders who have a vision for the common good-- in their own nations and beyond their borders…  and who are courageous enough to risk their political popularity for the promise of a viable global future.  We need economists and business leaders who are smart enough to know that it takes more than money to create a harmonious global household. 
We need faith communities—people like us—who know the earth is the Lord’s and that all the earth is holy ground.  We need to commit ourselves to living and proclaiming that alternative vision to our communities and the world.

We live in a broken and fearful world, but we are Easter people who follow the Risen Christ.   If we are truly to be an Easter people--if we are truly to point toward the new life that is possible in a post-Easter world-- then we need to live into the abundant life that Jesus offers us. We need to learn to trust, with the Psalmist, that God will provide what we truly need and that we “shall not want,” even if we need to give up some of our selfish grasping and indulgences.

We know that we can trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to give us the courage we need to unmask idolatries and to work with others for justice, freedom and peace, for the welfare of all.

So, let us commit ourselves to live more lightly and faithfully on this holy ground, and to care for the earth as a way of worshipping and serving our gracious Creator God!
May it be so for you and for me. Amen!



Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
April 22, 2018



[1] Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (2010), p. 151.
[2] Genesis 1:1-31
[3] Newsome, Carol A., “Common Ground: An Ecological Reading of Genesis 2-3”; The Earth Story in Genesis, Earth Bible, 2, ed. Habel, Norman, and Shirley Wurst (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 64-5.

[6] The story of the flood is in Genesis, chapters 6-8.  See Genesis 9:9-10 for the covenant.
[7] Genesis 9:12-17.
[8] Sally McFague, Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril (Fortress, 2001).

[9] P.C. Enniss, “Holy Ground,” in www.goodpreacher.com

[10] Robert Costanza et al, An Introduction to Ecological Economics (1979), quoted in Sallie McFague, Life Abundant.

 

 



Sunday, April 15, 2018

"Resurrection Doubt, Resurrection Hope." A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Luke 24:36-48

"Supper at Emmaus." Artist: He Qi


"Resurrection Doubt, Resurrection Hope"

Luke 24:36-48



“While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering…”

            New Testament scholar David Lose says, “If you don’t have serious doubts about the Easter story, you’re not paying attention.”[1]
            Think about it. The different gospel accounts have some interesting variations, but they’re consistent about one thing: nobody believes the good news of Jesus’ resurrection when they first hear it. And that includes Jesus’ own inner circles of disciples, who were closest to him and spent the most time with him.
            Easter Sunday was only two weeks ago, but it feels like longer to me. But the verses we just heard are a continuation of Luke’s account of the first Easter day.
            In the first story, the women went to the tomb, they found the tomb was empty. Heavenly messengers opened the scriptures to them, explaining that Jesus had been raised from the dead. But when the women returned to the Eleven disciples and the others, they dismissed what the women said, calling it “an idle tale.”
            Actually, the word Luke used-- leros-- is the root of our word “delirious.” So, the disciples may have been saying the women were extremely excited and joyful, but also incoherent…irrational…or mentally confused. Delirious.
           
            Well, is it so surprising that the disciples had their doubts? Jesus had died on the cross and been buried. The testimony they heard from the women that Jesus who died has been raised upsets the natural order of things and everything they’ve always believed about how things work in the world.
           
            The story continues. Peter gets up and runs to the tomb to see for himself and he’s amazed.
           
            In the second story, on the same day, Cleopas and another disciple were walking toward Emmaus and talking about what had been happening. Jesus came and started walking with them, but they didn’t recognize him, even as Jesus interprets the scriptures for them. When they invite Jesus to dinner and he took bread and blessed it and broke it and gave it to them, their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, and Jesus vanished from their sight.
            That same hour, the two got up and returned to Jerusalem, and they found the eleven and other disciples, who were talking about how Jesus was risen and had appeared to Simon Peter. Then Clopas and his companion told about their encounter on the road and how Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
            The story continues in the verses we heard this morning. While they were all talking, all of a sudden Jesus was standing among them, saying, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought they were seeing a ghost.
            Imagine having to explain to your closest friends, over and over again, that you’re not a ghost or a figment of their imagination, that you are real and alive, approachable, and trustworthy.  What would you say or do to calm their fears?
            Jesus doesn’t scold them or reprove them or shame them. He sees that they’re still struggling, even though he’d predicted all these things three times, and they’ve already heard the testimony of the women, and Cleopas and his companion, and Peter.
            Jesus meets them where they are.  He asks them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet. See that it is I myself. Touch me and see--for a ghost doesn’t have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”  Jesus showed them his hands and feet, which bear unmistakable signs of his crucifixion and vulnerability.
            But that isn’t enough. “In their joy, they were disbelieving and still wondering…”
            So, Jesus says, “Do you have anything to eat? They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.
            Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you--that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Jesus’ whole life, death, and rising were about what God is doing in the world--reconciling the world to God’s self. It has always been about God and God’s purposes and agenda for creation-- repentance that leads to forgiveness and the wholeness of creation.[2]

            Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
            He opened their minds to begin to see that death is not the final word. He sets them free from those bonds and commissions them: “You are witnesses of these things.”
            I love how Luke’s account of the resurrection story shows us that joy and disbelief, wonder and understanding, fear and courage are all part of our experience. Apparently, we don’t have to have it all together to be a witness to “all of these things.” Our Christian faith takes root in the tension.  Jesus meets us--all of us-- where we are in order to embrace our wonder, disbelief, and joy and gather us into the amazing, surprising grace and newness of God.

            Today’s gospel lesson brings the work and ministry and teaching of Jesus full circle. At the very beginning of his gospel, Luke tells us that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s plan to redeem all of creation.
            The power of the resurrection is the power to plant the seeds of transformation and new life. The hope of the resurrection is grounded in the experience of those first disciples, whose closed minds were opened.
            Just when we think the story is over, God has something new to say.  It has always been about God, and it still is. 

            As witnesses, we are called to declare in our words and deeds the presence and power of God in the midst of tragedy, despair, and death. They are not ultimate, because God’s goodness is stronger than evil and death.
            The good news is that we do not witness alone, as we are part of a community of fellow believers. We do not witness alone, as the Spirit is indeed coming. In a broken and fearful world, the same Spirit who inspired the prophets and apostles gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.[3]
           
            Thanks be to God!
           



[2] Barbara J. Essex, in “Homiletical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent Through Pentecost. Kindle Edition, Loc 15076/
[3] Brief Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 1990.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

A Meditation on the 50th Anniversary of the Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King




            April 4, 1968.   For those of us who are old enough to remember, that day is indelibly etched in our memories. I was a sophomore in college, at West Chester State, near Philadelphia--  a kid from rural Pennsylvania. We didn’t have the internet, and I didn’t even have a TV at school, so we didn’t have the amount of information available to us that we take for granted today.
            But I remember exactly where I was when I heard that Dr. King had been killed. A friend showed up at my part-time job at a community center and told me, and he offered me a ride back to campus.  I have vivid memories of being part of an ecumenical community memorial service a few days later. I had been inspired by what I knew about Dr. King, and I remember the despair I felt when he was assassinated.
            For a long time, a lot of people have had a tendency to freeze the memory of Martin Luther King in August of 1963, at the time of his “I have a dream speech.”  A lot of people have appropriated-- or misappropriated his words to promote their own agendas.

            If we are to honor Dr. King’s legacy, we need to recognize how the events of the last few years of his life had impacted him. On Christmas Eve 1967, a few months before he died, he told his congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church that the first time he saw the dream turn into a nightmare was just a few weeks after the March on Washington, in September of 1963, “when four beautiful, unoffending, innocent Negro girls were murdered in a church in Birmingham, Alabama.” He went on, I watched that dream turn into a nightmare as I moved through the ghettos of the nation and saw my black brothers and sisters perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity, and saw the nation doing nothing to grapple with the Negroes’ problem of poverty. I saw that dream turn into a nightmare as I watched my black brothers and sisters in the midst of anger and understandable outrage, in the midst of their hurt, in the midst of their disappointment, turn to misguided riots to try to solve that problem. I saw that dream turn into a nightmare as I watched the war in Vietnam escalating, and as I saw so-called military advisers, 16,000 strong, turn into fighting soldiers until today over 500,000 American boys are fighting on Asian soil.”[1]
Dr. King comforted the families of those little girls and preached their funerals, and struggled with the fact that the church was bombed partly because it had been a focal point for Birmingham’s community in the struggle he had led just months before.[3]
Dr. King was going through a rapid transformation from a civil rights leader to a human rights activist. He came to see himself as an advocate for the poor and oppressed wherever they were.  He began working to bring together people of all races and parts of the country, anyone who was impacted by poverty and injustice.  His focus had broadened to social and economic justice for all and demanding workers’ rights, environmental justice, antiwar activism.
In December 1967, Dr. King announced a Poor People’s March on Washington he was organizing to demand better jobs, better homes, better education--better lives than the ones they were living.
During this time, in the eyes of many, Dr. King was seen as a “communist dupe,” “troublemaker,” ‘traitor,” or “naïve, because he was challenging the status quo and opposing the Vietnam War and speaking out against the triple evils of materialism and systemic poverty, of militarism, and racism.  He had become unpopular and discouraged. Even some people close to him were telling him that it was wrong for him to take on economic injustice.
A few months before his death, Dr. King said, “the movement for social change has entered a time of temptation to despair.  He had his struggles and was tempted to walk away. But he stayed steadfast in his commitment to work to confront the power structure and injustice.[2]
I have to admit that off and on I struggle with discouragement.   It’s hard to stay energized and focused over the years.  
Soon after I moved to Detroit, our Detroit Presbytery formed an Anti-Racism Team, and a diverse group of around 20 of us began the hard work of becoming a team and learning and strategizing together to address systemic racism. Some of our members were old enough and engaged enough that they had marched with Dr. King. In one of our early sessions, one of the laments we heard expressed was: “Back in the sixties, we thought we would have made more progress by now!”
That was twenty years ago. Since then, we’ve gone through a time when a lot of people were talking for a while about how we were living in a post-racial society. But it’s obvious that’s not where we are. The work is not done.
This fiftieth anniversary year is bringing people together to re-focus and re-group. This is not a time for us to be satisfied with talk about being kind to one another-- although I’m certainly in favor of kindness.
I agree with the Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, who often has challenging words for white people and said earlier today, “Without confession of the sin of white racism, white supremacy, white privilege, people who call themselves white Christians will never be free.” He said that white Christians must confess the sins of colonialism and racism, “including in the highest levels of power….”  “Confession must lead to action….[because] racism is more than individual behavior, and repentance is more than saying ‘you’re sorry.’”[3]
It gives me hope that religious activists from a wide range of faith communities have came together today in our nation’s capital and Memphis and other cities to re-commit themselves to carry on the work of dismantling systemic racism.
It gives me hope that a growing number of people from faith communities, organized labor and other activists are coming together to be part of a new Poor People’s Campaign, beginning on the day after Mother’s Day.
As the Rev. William Barber II, one of the directors of the Poor People’s Campaign, said earlier today: “We cannot be those who merely love the tombs of the prophets. We do not celebrate assassinations and killings of our prophets. We find the place they fell. We reach down in the blood. We pick up the baton, and carry it forward. And we must.”[4]
            Dr. Martin Luther King continues to inspire us today.  In his last sermon, in Memphis, on the night before he was killed, Dr. King said, “We’ve got to say to the nation: We know how it’s coming out. For when people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory.

            So let us be caught up with that which is right. Let us be willing to sacrifice for it, and work together for a moral renewal in our nation!  Let us pick up the baton and carry it forward!


Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
April 4, 2018

Sunday, April 1, 2018

"Not the End of the Story." A Sermon on Mark 16:1-8 on Easter Sunday.


"Not the End of the Story"

Mark 16:1-8

         The Sabbath day has passed and it is the dawn of a new day.  Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome are bringing spices to anoint the body of Jesus.  For the disciples, it has been a long and painful Sabbath.  The women had seen Jesus’ body placed hurriedly in the tomb late Friday afternoon.   Now the three women are headed back to the tomb, wondering among themselves, who would roll back the large stone that covered the door.
            Their relief at finding the stone rolled back turned to fear when they get there. Jesus’ body was gone.  Instead, there’s a young man, dressed in white.
"Don’t be alarmed;" he says, "you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified.   He has been raised.  He is not here.      Now, go and tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus is going before you to Galilee.  You will see him there, just as he told you."
            The women flee from the tomb, filled with terror and amazement.  They say nothing to anyone-- for they are afraid.   Mark’s gospel ends here.
            This unfinished story bothered people in the early church enough that they wrote two different endings to tack on.  It's bothered a lot of scholars over the years-- so much that some of them developed theories about how the last page of Mark's gospel was lost…  or how it wore out and fell off.
            However, the consensus of biblical scholars today is that Mark did indeed end his gospel with verse 8.   In Mark’s gospel, there are no joyfully amazed women rushing back with news of the empty tomb…no awestruck exclamations to the disciples that “he is risen!”   There are no reassuring appearances by the risen Christ himself.   We have to read the other gospel accounts that were written later to find these things.
            The three women are filled with grief, and overwhelmed with amazement and terror.  On this Easter Sunday in the year 2018, can you relate to their response? What do you feel when you hear the news of the resurrection? Are you confident and joyful? Are you ready to go and tell?
            Maybe. Maybe not. I suspect that there are a lot of people in the pews of churches-- and outside the church this Easter Sunday who feel like they’re living in a Good Friday kind of world. 
            If you feel like you've been living in a Good Friday world, maybe you can relate to the women who went to the tomb that first Easter morning.  They'd hoped that Jesus was going to be the Messiah who would liberate them from the Roman oppressors.  But things haven't turned out the way they'd hoped.
            The women didn’t expect to Jesus to be resurrected, even though Jesus had told his disciples three times that he would suffer and die and then be raised again. But they hadn’t understood.
             The women had seen Jesus executed on the cross with their own eyes, and they thought death had won the day.  They’d come to anoint his body for burial.
            As far as they knew, nothing had changed. They were still living under the oppression of the Roman empire. The empire had executed Jesus because they saw him as a threat to the stability of the Palestinian region of the Roman empire, because he dared to disturb the peace of the “Pax Romana” by causing the ruckus at the Temple, calling out the hypocrisy of the temple leaders, seeking to cleanse it and reclaim it from those who were colluding with Rome.
            The empire executed Jesus because he had been proclaiming a rival empire-- the Kingdom of God.[1]
            As Roger Wolsey points out, those who worshiped Caesar as god executed Jesus because his followers were describing him with the titles they reserved for Caesar: “Lord,” “Son of God,” “Lord of lords,” Prince of Peace,” and “King of kings.” 
            Jesus lived a life of radical, self-giving, unconditional love, teaching subversive and counter-cultural things that challenged the empire’s authority.[2]  He preached the kingdom of God. The confession of the earliest Christians was “Jesus is Lord,” which means Caesar is not.  
            So much had happened that first Holy Week, and the women were overwhelmed and terrified.  The young man at the tomb says, “Don’t be alarmed. Don’t be afraid.”  That’s easier said than done. “You came looking for a crucified Jesus, but he isn’t here.  He has been raised. Go and tell his disciples and Peter-- even Peter, the one who denied Jesus three times. Tell them that you all need to go back to Galilee, and you will see him there, just as he said.”
            I think maybe Mark knew that no story about death and resurrection could have a neat and tidy ending. One of the themes throughout Mark’s gospel is how the disciples just don’t get the meaning of a lot of his teachings. We keep hearing Jesus ask, “Don’t you understand?”
            Three times the disciples had heard Jesus predict that he is going to have to suffer and die and then be raised again-- but they end up dazed, confused, and arguing about who’s the greatest.   Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah-- but completely misunderstands what that means, and actually rebukes Jesus when he explains.  
            Judas betrays Jesus.  Peter denies him 3 times.  All of the disciples desert him at the time of the crucifixion, except some of the women who followed him.     
            Finally, even these women, who up to this point had proved to be faithful disciples, are too afraid to go and share the good news. And so, Mark ends here, with failure, with an invitation to pick up where the gospel leaves off.[1]
            Maybe this is Mark’s way of telling us that Jesus meets us at the point when we are broken, when we have failed, when we’re afraid, and turns what seems like an ending-- into a new beginning.  
            The story isn’t over.  With the first disciples, we need to leave the empty tomb and go back to Galilee.   Like the first disciples, we can’t understand the story the first time.  We need to go to the cross and to the empty tomb… and then read the story again and find ourselves in the story.   We need to go back to “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”[2]   This time, we need to hear the gospel with post-resurrection eyes. 
            When we go back to Galilee, we see Jesus healing and teaching and casting out demons, but always being misunderstood, even by those closest to him.  Mark is telling us that the saving action of God in the world is always hidden and ambiguous. 
            We go back to Galilee, and the second time around every story in the Gospel of Mark is a post-resurrection appearance.  What we see is a God who surprises us at every turn in the road, a God whose power is expressed finally in weakness.[3]
             Mark wrote an open ending to his gospel in order to invite the disciples and everyone who reads it to jump in and take up our part in continuing it.   You see, the story of what God is doing in and through Jesus isn’t over at the empty tomb.   It’s only just getting started.  
            Mark’s Gospel is all about setting us up to live resurrection lives and to continue the story of God’s redeeming work in the world. 
            Mark intentionally left the story unfinished-- because it isn't just a story about something that happened long ago.  It's the story of the church, and the story isn't finished.   That first Easter, the whole urgent, world-changing story was hanging on the testimony of witnesses who run away in fear and silence.   
            Yet, they must have gone out and told. They must have gone to Galilee and seen the risen Christ. They must have proclaimed the good news to the others-- or we wouldn’t be here today. 
           

            We live in a world can be a frightening place.  Sometimes we can feel overwhelmed by all the pain and suffering... hatred and evil we see.
            The women came to the tomb expecting to see a place of death and defeat.    They thought the powers of this world had had the last word.
            But the God we worship and serve hears the suffering of marginalized and oppressed people and cares… and “acts with justice and mercy to redeem creation.”  The Living God will have the last word, because love is stronger than evil.  That’s part of the good news of Easter.
            Jesus came to live among us, full of grace and truth[3]and “proclaimed the reign of God… preaching good news to the poor and release to the captives… teaching by word and deed…and blessing the children…healing the sick and binding up the brokenhearted…eating with outcasts… forgiving sinners… and calling all to repent and believe the gospel.”[4]   
            When Jesus challenged the religious authorities and the empire with his vision of love and justice and transformation, the empire executed him.
            Just as surely as that first Good Friday was the domination system’s “no” to Jesus, Easter is God’s “yes” to Jesus and his vision… and God’s “no” to systems of domination and oppression. 
            Our Easter faith assures us that in Christ's death on the cross and his resurrection, God has already overcome the power of death and evil.  The old life is gone.  A new life has begun[5]a life of gratitude and joy...  a life in which the Holy Spirit sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor, and binds us together with all believers in the one body of Christ, the church. 

God's redemptive purpose for the world will prevail through those who answer Christ's call to follow him and carry on his purpose and work.
            The good news is that we are not alone.  In a broken and fearful world, the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom and peace.[6]
            That’s how the rest of the story continues.

            Giacomo Puccini, who wrote such great operas as Madame Butterfly and La Boheme, was stricken with cancer in 1922.  He decided to write one more opera entitled Turandot. 
            One of his students said, "But suppose you die before you finish it?"
            "Oh, my disciples will finish it,"  Puccini replied confidently.  
            Puccini died in 1924, and his disciples did finish the opera. Puccini's best friend, Franco Alfano, worked from sketches left by the composer to complete the opera, which many consider it to be his best work.
            The premier took place in Milan, Italy, at La Scala Opera House.  Arturo Toscanini, one of Puccini's best students, was the conductor.  The performance began and continued to the point at which Puccini's work had abruptly ended.  Toscanini paused and said to the audience, "Thus far, the master wrote...   and then the master died." Then he picked up the baton and shouted to the audience, "But his disciples finished his music!"[7]

            As disciples of Christ, we are called, as individuals and as Christ's church, to be about the task of finishing the music whose melody and direction we can discern in the acts of God in history   and in the life and teachings of Jesus.
            God calls us to live beyond our fears and doubts.  In the resurrection, God showed us his amazing, life-giving power.  We know that the story of our life with God has a joyful ending.
            Go.  Tell.  As Christians, we are called to take risks...  to make ourselves vulnerable in love...  to share with strangers...  and to dare to challenge unjust power.  
God, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, is making all things new, and we are called to be a part of this new life  So, go.  Tell.
Christ is risen!  Alleluia!


Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
April 1, 2018


[1] Roger Wolsey, “Why They Killed Jesus”, in Patheos (2015) at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogerwolsey/2015/06/why-they-killed-jesus-2/

[2] Wolsey, “Why They Killed Jesus.”
[3] John 1
[4] “Brief Statement of Faith,” Presbyterian Church (USA), 1990.
[5] “The old life is gone; a new life has begun” is part of an assurance of forgiveness that we hear often during the corporate act of confession in Presbyterian worship.
[6] “Brief Statement of Faith.”
[7] I’ve read several versions of the story of how the opera Turandot was finished after Puccini’s death, which agree on most points. One source says the premier performance stopped at the point where Puccini died, and that it was followed the next day with a performance of the completed work. In any case, the disciples carried on and completed the work.