Saturday, April 18, 2009

Is It Just Too Much?

The Ministry That Begins in a Tomb

A sermon preached on Easter Day, April 12, 2009, in the Episcopal Church of St. Stephen and the Incarnation, Washington, DC.

Mark 16:1-8

One of the God’s best miracles is the Gospel according to Mark. Were it not for Mark, we would not know so well that the disciples of Jesus were a bunch who never got it, dispelling for all time the notion that “if Jesus were only here” people would somehow have access to deeper insight and might actually change their minds. Mark tells a no-frills story about Jesus, making clear that he knew what he was doing but that nobody else actually did, with the possible exception of the demons, a gentile woman with a problem daughter, and a Roman centurion at the end of the crucifixion scene. Allowance can be made for Peter, who mid-way the gospel proclaims Jesus as the Messiah, only to demonstrate in the next breath that he understood nothing about what that meant in Jesus’ mind.

Thank God for Mark! In telling the story about Jesus’ arrest, he says flatly that all the disciples—the males, that is—deserted him and ran away. Peter is the only one who sneaked back, just in time to fulfill Jesus’ prediction that the cock would not crow twice before he had denied knowing Jesus three times. Mark tells us that a band of women stood by and watched the crucifixion from a distance, and were on hand to notice where the body of Jesus was placed. When times comes for him to tell the resurrection story, he does not pull out the trumpets, like Matthew, or the violins, like Luke, or the camera like John (I say that not to disparage, but to compliment the richness of the other three). Rather, Mark tells his story surrounded by an eerie silence. We only hear the women muttering in the early morning about who will roll the stone away, so that they can get into the tomb to perform the anointing of the body. They enter the tomb. They encounter a young man in a white robe (call him an angel if you will; Mark does not). Alarmed, they say nothing. The young man does the talking. “Do not be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.”

We may well wonder what effect such a statement had on three grieving women. Mark does not go into that quite yet. He continues the messenger’s message: “But go, tell…” And that they did not do. They went out of the tomb, full of terror and awe. They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid. End of gospel.

After awhile people simply could not believe that that was the end that Mark really intended. So they decided that a page must have been lost from his book, requiring that they make up something to round the story off. And they borrowed some stuff from here and there and gave chapter 16 a bit more length and a lot less credibility.

So that is how it ends. Women encounter an angel, hear the news, and clear out, too scared to talk. Readers know, of course, that something happened. This Galilee appearance the messenger had announced must certainly have happened or the report of its prediction would surely have been whited out. Still, there is something immanently believable about a group of people too overwhelmed and scared to say anything. In that sense, the women are just like most of us.

If you are like me, you have been to a few Easter celebrations, and all of them have proclaimed that Christ is risen. But then what? Maybe it is enough to sing the alleluias, to be reassured of everlasting life and a personal resurrection, to come away with a gladdened heart that no matter how bad things get, there is always the possibility of new chances and new life. I have more than a feeling that the Church today (and I want to define that liberally enough to include you, whoever you are) is just about as speechless, as stymied, and frankly as scared as were the two Marys and Salome on that morning at the tomb. We hear the proclamation. Perhaps because it seems so unlikely, but I think maybe moreso because it frequently seems so disconnected from our workaday world, we turn to leave and simply don’t know what to say or do. It is just too much.

I made a pact with you some months ago to look at the scriptures from the perspective of ministry. I must explain. To talk of ministry is not to talk churchy talk about clergy. Ministry, in the Christian vocabulary, is the word we use to talk about everything we are and everything we do. Your ministry enwraps all your relationships, all your hopes, your efforts, your work, your laughter, your dreams, and even your sins. What makes your ministry Christian, if it is Christian, is that all the stuff in your life is in someway expressing the death and life of Jesus and glorifying the God whom he reveals and who reveals him. The point of all ministry in the Name of Christ is to do what Jesus spent his young and short life doing: bringing the world to God, and in the process, opening up the world to its deepest Truth.

That is a tall order, and one that not a few people right here would shake their heads at and say, “Wow. Maybe I better check out another religion, or maybe abandon religion entirely.” But it is exactly at this juncture that Mark’s resurrection story intersects with us. We hear the proclamation and we stand confounded. Go and tell? Tell what? Whether or not Mark intended it, that is exactly the effect that his gospel’s weird ending can have. We have to figure it out, and nobody is going to do it for us, including Jesus. If we are to meet him (in Galilee, for instance), we have to get a grip. We have a trip to make, and perhaps a hundred other things to do. In retrospect, the stone that we worried so about earlier in the day seems pitifully insignificant now. We ourselves have to get rolling!

Mark invites us to finish the story with our ministry. And what is that? We are going to answer that question in just a few minutes. We are going to make a pilgrimage to the baptismal font, as is our custom in St. Stephen’s. The font, among other things, symbolizes the tomb of Jesus. On Maundy Thursday night, we placed the Body of Jesus, in the form of Bread and Wine, in the font, saying graphically that font and tomb are one. But tomb turns out to be the place where our ministry begins, because it is there that what was the place of death becomes filled with the water of life. We are baptized, people! We have been buried with Christ in his death by our baptism, and through those waters God has raised us to a life united with our risen Lord’s!

That ministry, which is startlingly like Jesus’ life, consists in those five things that you and I keep promising over and over again. We promise that we will continue in community with each other, breaking bread and praying. We promise not if, but when, we fall away, we will repent and return. We promise that we will proclaim through what we say as well as what we do the Good News that God is about forgiveness, not damnation. We promise that we will spend our lives treating everyone as if even the dumbest and the worst were Christ himself. And we promise that we will not rest in the fight for justice and peace until the dignity of every human being (and I would add all creation) is assured. That’s it. There is no other ministry than that.

So what happens when you leave the tomb today? Will the words stick in your throat? Will it just be too much?

Polly Wiley was one of the dearest friends I ever had. She was my spiritual director about twenty-five years ago. She told me that one night, years before I knew her, she was driving the long and dark way up Route 7 in Connecticut to the Berkshires. Alone for several hours, she was praying for a host of people in her life who had asked her prayers. Some awful things we happening to some of them: intense suffering, grief, tragedy, all piled onto one another. In the middle of her prayers, she stopped. Gripping the steering wheel, she shouted out, “Why God, why? Why all this? Why do you let it happen? It is just too much, too much!” Polly said that in the silence that followed her outburst, she distinctly heard a voice—not a real human voice, but a voice as real as if it were—saying, “I mean it to be too much.”

Were it not too much, this ministry of ours, we should fall too swiftly for the fantasy that we could do it all ourselves. We could save the planet, stop the wars, end the suffering, cure the illness, all because we are just that smart and just that holy. But no. It is not we who live and work and do this ministry, but the power of God, the living Christ within us. Don’t worry. There will be days, probably even this week, when you will say, “It’s just too much.” Why bother? Why try? My God, I’m just so little and the task is so big. And when you do, remember the proclamation you have heard at the tomb. Your master is risen. And the selfsame power that raised him from the dead, raises you.

© Frank G. Dunn, 2009

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