Sunday, April 5, 2015

Preaching Easter at Sunrise Services in Albany

A "word cloud" takes a passage of text and reforms it into a "cloud" of words.

For fun, I tried a single paragraph from my Easter sermon delivered at the Sunrise Service offered by the FOCUS Churches of Albany, NY. The results capture some of the key words of Easter Sunday: Mark's Gospel. Tomb. Yet.

The sunrise service was held at a park area by the New York State Capital Building. The first Christians gathered in the shadow of "Empire". Guess these 21st-century believers did the same, gathered in the shadow of the symbols of Empire State power.

MARK 16:1-8:

On Easter Sunday a few years ago, the service began with the children’s sermon. The children heard me inviting them forward to sit on the altar steps. That much was very familiar in weekly worship. They knew what to do, so they came forward and sat on the steps.

Yet after the children settled down, they began to look quizzically at one another wondering what was wrong. They heard my voice however they could not see me in the sanctuary anywhere.

Then a side door to the sanctuary opened and I popped my head in and said, “Happy Easter!”

The adults laughed, yet the children were not amused. They looked perplexed, puzzled and a little perturbed. As I made my way down to the altar steps, one child stood up in her freshly pressed Easter dress and said, “Why did you do that?”

Mark’s gospel leaves his readers feeling the same way. He tells the Easter story, yet he is not giving us what we expect. The tomb is found to be empty. That is familiar. The women are told of the resurrection by a man (angel?) dressed in white. They have heard the good news!

Yet, according to the most ancient Greek manuscripts, Mark’s gospel ends on a very odd note: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

“Why did you do that?” we might say. With little thought to apology, let alone decorum, Mark ends abruptly at verse 8. What type of “good news” ends with “for they were afraid”? No wonder that later manuscripts of Mark’s gospel are found with more verses, trying to give a much happier, sensible ending than “They heard the word and then headed for the hills”.

Yet, if you read Mark from beginning to end, Mark’s gospel is quite fond of upending our expectations. Jesus reverses the expectations of the world around him. People who are at the margins are brought into the center of his ministry. The people in high places are brought low by a parable told at dinner among friends and sinners, foes and disciples alike. More than mere spectacle, miracles restore dignity and worth to people written off by religion and society alike. The world as the disciples knew it, the world as Pilate and the Temple leaders knew it just didn’t look the same through the teachings of Jesus.

Death, the most “final word” that this world can offer, ends much, much differently. Easter provides a different and very specific ‘last word’ on the life and death of Jesus. Even if at first, such a defeat of death with resurrection is met with terror and amazement by his own followers.

How does that story continue? Perhaps we see glimpses of the gospel, even while we struggle our way through life, living in the midst of terror and amazement, fear and uncertainty. As the disciples recover their wits and live out their convictions, Mark’s ending shows the shaking of the status quo is unfinished, left for the gathered people called “church” to keep stirring and bringing God’s Kingdom/Reign to bear in the world while we look for Christ’s return.

Mark’s ending opens up life anew as well as a way of life, where the faithful understand “what matters” in a different light.  For instance, look at the discipleship values of the FOCUS Churches.  The gospel is glimpsed when the hungry find a warm breakfast meal and provision of food, not judgment or inattention, when the pantry doors open, when clergy and lay leaders protest “the powers that be” who seem more capable of budget protecting yacht buyers from sales tax while threatening cuts to the truly needed type of entitlement programs. Or when we practice the ancient and ever needed ministry of hospitality, providing welcome to the stranger, the refugee and the marginalized.

Otherwise, why do we do that?

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