Sunday, April 28, 2013

You Finish the Story

You Finish the Story
Mark 16:1-8
This is the song that never ends;
It just goes on and on my friends.
Someone started singing it not knowing what it was,
And we’ll go on singing it forever just because
This is the song that never ends;
Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
            I was on a bus trip with a college pep band the first time I heard this song.  As you might imagine, it took a long while for them to run out of steam, especially because they had an enthusiastic leader with great stamina and creativity.  You’ll see later how this song plays into this week’s Scripture passage—if you haven’t figured it out already.
            Unless you’re using the Old King James Version, your Bible probably has a note after Mark 16:8.  It says something like:  “Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16:9-20.”  Scholarly opinion today is that these verses were added by a later author who didn’t like Mark’s abrupt—and somewhat downbeat—ending.  The truth seems to be that Mark did indeed end his gospel on an abrupt and decidedly negative note.  Unlike Matthew, Luke and John, there are no post-resurrection appearances by Jesus, no conversations with his disciples (including on the road to Emmaus and “In the Garden” with Mary Magdalene—two of the most beautiful of the resurrection stories), no time with Peter and the others in Galilee.  This doesn’t mean that Mark is right and the other three evangelists wrong—or the other way round.  Mark has a different take on the resurrection—a different point to make.  What could impel him to such an ending?  What was he trying to tell his readers?  Why would he end with the statement that the women failed to deliver the message with which they had been entrusted?
            All four gospel writers agree that early in the morning of the first day of the week, some of the women who had followed Jesus throughout his ministry went to the tomb to anoint his body.  All agree that angels (men in clothing so brightly white that they could not be from this world) spoke to those at the tomb and told them that Jesus was not to be found among the dead, but among the living.  He had risen.  The gospels differ as to the rest of the details (who actually went to the tomb, how many angels there were, the sequence of events), but apart from Mark, each tells of Jesus’ interactions with his followers.  Each lets us see the risen Christ.
            Mark tells us that when the women encounter a young man dressed in a white robe (by the way:  Why do we always picture angels as female when the Bible always describes them as males?) they fail to follow his instructions.  He tells them to return to the other disciples and Peter (my italics) and let them know Jesus is going to Galilee and will meet them there.  Instead, the women “fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (16:8)
            Why were they afraid?  Why did they fail in their assigned task?  Did they fear the men wouldn’t believe them?  Luke tells us that was the case.  The male disciples discounted their story (because they were female and not to be trusted to get things right?).  In Luke’s and John’s gospels some of the men went to the tomb to verify the women’s account.
            Mark had both a literary and theological reason for ending this way.  The message he wanted to convey to his audience was that the story of Jesus wasn’t over.  It was to go “on and on,” never ending.  The women failed in their responsibility, but those who read his account were to do differently.  Mark was saying, “You finish the story.  You carry the gospel forward.” 
He says the same to us.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Going Fishing

Going Fishing
John 21:1-14
            Imagine the disciples’ frustration.  They had been cooped up in that room for more than a week.  For men like these it must have seemed like an eternity.  They were used to being outdoors.  Their occupations were not sedentary.  They didn’t hang around an office all day.  They worked with their hands, moving around, being active.  During the three years they had been with Jesus they were on a journey—on the road.  They weren’t used to being still.  They weren’t used to being stuck in one place.  They must have been very restless.
Jesus had appeared twice to them in that room.  It was a place they knew.  Still, how long could they stay there?  Even though they were still (apparently) afraid of the Jewish religious leaders, they had been in place too long.  It was time to move on, to return to someplace familiar.  It was time to go home to Galilee.
Did they sneak out?  Did they leave under the cover of darkness?  Did they all go together, or leave one or two at a time?  Did all eleven go, or just the restless ones?  We don’t know, of course.  John doesn’t tell us.  We do know at least some of them left the confines of that room and headed for the open road.  No matter how afraid they were, they probably reasoned they would be safer out of Jerusalem and away from the authorities.
Returning home wasn’t enough for some of them.  They couldn’t just sit around the house.  That wasn’t much better than the room in Jerusalem.  One day, Simon Peter announced, “I’m going fishing!”  Several others, (Thomas, Nathaniel, James, John, two others) said, “We’ll go with you.” 
This was better!  Here, they knew what they were doing.  Settling back into the routines of an occupation they knew well, performing tasks so familiar they didn’t have to think about them—this was good.  This was manageable.  This work kept their hands busy and their minds off the strange experiences of the past weeks.  Even though they fished all night (a common occurrence for these men) and caught nothing, they could deal with it.  They were back at work, back doing what they knew, back exercising muscles they hadn’t used in far too long.
Then Jesus called.  Standing on the shore he said, “How’s the fishing?”  They didn’t recognize him.  Not unusual.  They didn’t expect to see Jesus there.  It might have been early enough in the day that the light was bad.  Their minds were elsewhere—on other matters.  Whatever the reason(s), they didn’t know it was their Lord—until he told them where to find fish.  When they hauled in the catch—or tried to—they knew Jesus had found them.
Jesus always finds us.  Like Candid Camera, when we least expect, it Jesus is there with what we need.  For the disciples it was a load of fish and a most welcome breakfast.  For us it might not be material things.  We know we can’t count on Jesus to bring us that job, or the money we need to pay the rent, or the perfect life companion—although it’s not a good idea to rule these things out.  Stranger occurrences have happened to those who follow Jesus.  We do know we can count on Jesus to bring us the strength we need to cope with rough situations.  We know we can count on him to be a comforting presence in times of trouble.  We know we can count on him to fill us with the love we need to deal with those difficult people in our lives.
Like the disciples, we feel comfortable when we’re doing the ordinary day-to-day tasks of our lives.  Like them we may get so caught up in the routine that we forget about Jesus.  Don’t get too complacent.  That’s the time Jesus is most likely to call.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Doubt and Fear

Doubt and Fear
John 20:19-31
            Which is worse—doubt or fear?  We might answer, “They’re equally bad!”  But are they?  Perhaps our reactions to doubt and to fear can help us see a difference.
            I’m tired, and my legs are sore from walking and standing all day.  I’m in the middle of a heavy day of shopping with my wife.  As a good husband (actually, because I don’t want to look bad) I’m carrying most of the shopping bags.  We enter the last (I hope!) store of the day.  Over in the corner I see a rickety old chair.  I doubt it can hold me, but after poking and prodding it, and pushing down hard on it with both hands, I sit—and it doesn’t collapse.  I’ve overcome my doubt and found comfort—at last.
            Same scenario:  I’m just as tired, just as anxious to take a load off, and the chair is just as rickety, and yet inviting.  This time, however, I’m afraid.  I look at that chair and imagine all the things that could go wrong.  The legs could break.  The back could collapse.  The chair wobbles so much when I move it that I am sure it won’t hold my weight.  So, out of fear that I might wind up in a worse state than I am now, I walk away.  There it stands, ready to receive me if I only trust it—but I don’t.  I’m still tired, my legs are still sore, but it’s worse now because I’m too afraid to find relief.
            It is the evening of that first Easter.  The disciples are huddled in a room with the door locked “for fear of the Jews.”  Suddenly, Jesus is there among them.  “Shalom,” Jesus says.  “Peace be with you.”  We know what Jesus means.  In John 14:27, at the Passover supper, he said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  Not as the world gives do I give to you.”  God’s peace is different from the world’s peace—if there even is such a thing.  Jesus offers his followers the peace that passes all understanding, peace so complete that one doesn’t have to be afraid even if it seems there might be a ghost in the room.
            John tells us Thomas was missing that night.  We don’t know why he wasn’t there.  All we know is that he was absent—and one other thing.  He seems to be the only disciple who’s not afraid to leave the room.  Wherever he was, he wasn’t locked in with the rest.  Thomas returned after Jesus had left.  When the others told him, “We have seen the Lord,” he didn’t believe them.  He said he’d have to see for himself before he’d accept that Jesus had risen.
            Eight days later, nothing had changed.  The disciples were still locked in the same room.   They hadn’t moved. The only difference was that Thomas was present.  The others had seen the risen Jesus more than a week before, but they were still huddled together, presumably still afraid of the Jews.  Their Lord’s appearance had made no difference. 
            Then, Jesus was with them again.  He spoke to Thomas.  “See the marks in my hands,” Jesus said.  “Touch the wound in my side.”  There is no record that Thomas touched Jesus.  We only know he said, “My Lord and my God!”  With those words he affirmed the deity of the risen Christ.
            So…which is worse—fear or doubt?  Thomas doubted until he saw Jesus; then his doubt disappeared.  The other disciples had seen Jesus, but were still afraid to move, still too paralyzed to realize that if Jesus could rise from the dead, they had nothing to worry about from the Jews.  Death had been conquered.  No one could harm them.
            We all doubt at times.  That’s to be expected.  It doesn’t stop us; it just slows us down a little.  But fear?  Fear debilitates, freezing us in place, keeping us from moving forward.  There may be reasons to doubt, but there’s never reason to fear.  Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Talking a Good Game

Talking a Good Game
Matthew 26:30-35
            It’s easy to talk a good game.  We do it all the time.  We promise to fix that leaky faucet or clean out the garage.  But when the time comes, we find ourselves, like Dagwood Bumstead, on the couch taking a nap, or heading for the golf course.  We talk about our exploits in high school or college—athletic, romantic or academic—as if we were the star student or athlete or lover—at least as long as no one is around who remembers us back then.  We make plans for all the big things we’ll accomplish in the future, but don’t take the first step towards bringing them to fruition.  We’re great at talking, but not so great at doing.
            Matthew tells us that Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, told his closest followers that they would all desert him.  “You will all fall away because of me this night,” Jesus said.  He knew that once he was arrested the flock would scatter.  It’s important to remember that Jesus wasn’t condemning them.  He was just stating what he knew to be fact.  When the Temple guard came to take him, the disciples would be frightened and go to ground.
            Peter, big talking Peter said, “No way, Jesus.  These others may take off, but I’ll be right by your side all the way.”   We can see the disciples rallying round Peter, falling all over themselves to assure Jesus of their undying loyalty.  I’m sure, at that moment, they really believed what they were saying.  They were earnest in their statements, and sure that nothing could prevent them from making good on their promises.  I also suspect that secretly, they still believed none of this would happen.  Jesus hadn’t been able to convince them that he was going to be executed, so their promise of support was easy to make.
            We know Jesus’ response to Peter:  “Before the rooster crows you will deny three times that you even know me.”  Again, Jesus was just stating fact.
            To be fair, the disciples had no idea what was about to happen.  They still believed that Jesus would use his immense power—the power they had seen at work so many times—to bring about God’s kingdom.  And they would be in charge.  They’d get rid of the Romans and show the Jewish religious leaders how things should be run.  When they were the leaders all that was wrong would be put right.
            To be completely fair, the disciples had every reason to go into hiding.  The Romans were brutal when it came to putting down insurrection.  The disciples were sure open rebellion was where Jesus was going with this whole kingdom of God thing.  Once Jesus had been taken, they knew they could be arrested, tried and executed as co-conspirators.  When everything went wrong, they did the most logical thing in the world—they ran for cover.
            Still, their reaction is disturbing—and lest we think we’d do any better, let us remember that knowing how things would turn out Easter morning makes it easy for us to look down our noses at these poor, stumbling, Galilean peasants.  If we were in their shoes I don’t think we’d have done any differently.
            It was only a few hours later that Jesus asked his followers to watch and pray with him.  We know what happened.  They’d had a big meal, more than enough wine, and it was late.  The food, the drink, the hour, and the excitement of the last few days got to them, and they fell asleep.  The crucial moment hadn’t even arrived and all their talk had come to nothing.
            It’s bad when we fail to keep our promises to ourselves and others when it comes to earthly things.  How much worse is it when we fail God by not keeping our promises concerning heavenly things?  Talking a good game but not following through can have serious consequences for our relationship with God.