An Unremarkable Miracle

Due to a last minute scheduling change, I suddenly find myself preaching this week. With the need to write a sermon on my mind, I read the Gospel lesson for Sunday again this morning, and realized that in all my excitement at the word “authority” yesterday, I had totally missed what the story is about. Did you know that Jesus performs a miracle in this week’s text? Apparently, I didn’t until today.

My quick-and-dirty reading of the Scriptures notwithstanding, this miracle that Jesus performs does, in the grand scheme of things, seem somewhat unremarkable. First, it is the cleansing of an unclean spirit, which seems pretty common place among the Feeding of the 5,000, walking on water, and raising the dead. What’s more, in a Gospel that tends to be sparse on details, Mark tells us that this all happened in the Synagogue on the Sabbath, and nobody gave a darn about it. Normally, when Jesus performs a miracle on the Sabbath, everybody gets all up in arms about it, but here, nobody says a word. It’s not a thing. It’s totally unremarkable, well, kind of. I wonder why that is.

Rhetorically, it is probably because it occurs in Mark 1, and there is no need to raise the tension level between Jesus and the powers-that-be quite yet, but is there more than that? This unremarkable miracle didn’t get Jesus in trouble, but rather, is started the spread of his fame. He performed many other miracles that day, at least one, the healing of Simon Peter’s Mother-in-Law, we’re told came before sunset. What does the preacher do, if anything, with this unremarkable miracle?

Celebrating Resurrection

Our website is still grumpy, so audio isn’t available, but my Easter sermon can still be read here.

On Good Friday, each year, we hear the story of Jesus’ Passion read from John’s Gospel. Each year, we hear Pilate and Jesus going back and forth in an argument it seems neither side wants to win. Pilate, for his part, really doesn’t want to kill Jesus. He knows that the impulse to have him crucified is born out of fear and jealousy, but he feels stuck, unless the King of the Jews can somehow help him out. Jesus, on the other hand, really seems to want to die. It is the culmination of his life and ministry that he should be betrayed into the hands of sinners and crucified. At one point, about mid-argument, Pilate flat-out asks Jesus, “Are you a king?” Jesus replies, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Pilate’s response to Jesus haunts me every time I hear it. “What is truth?” Having risen through the ranks of Roman politics to become a puppet king, I’m guessing Pilate isn’t really sure what truth is anymore. He’s compromised his integrity so often, he’s forgotten how to be truthful, and I think he asks Jesus with genuine intrigue. In hours since Good Friday, I’ve given a lot of thought to Pilate’s question. What is truth? In my best moments, I’ve gone deep, pondering the truths upon which I base my life. Mostly, my questioning has brought forth more mundane answers. The most common answer I’ve come up with to answer the question “what is truth” is that dead people don’t come back to life. In fact, it is upon this truth that the miracle of Easter hinges. Dead people don’t come back to life, and so the resurrection of Jesus is something which should be celebrated.

Several years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting a guy named Sam. Sam is a retired Medical Examiner from the Midwest. As you can guess, Sam has seen just about everything, but one story stands out among all the others. One night, Sam received a call at his home at about 2 o’clock in the morning. Outside of town, there was a man who needed to be pronounced dead: he had keeled over after a night of drinking at his favorite watering hole. Sam gathered himself, got dressed, and drove a little ways out into the country where he found a hole-in-the-wall bar full of patrons in various states of drunkenness lamenting over the dead man lying cold and motionless on the floor. There were no visible signs of life: no heartbeat or breathing; but Sam began his work as usual by giving the dead man a shot of atropine and adrenaline and doing a few chest compressions.

Suddenly, the dead man started to breathe. Then, he opened his eyes. The bartender quickly called 911 again, and the once-dead-man was rushed off to the hospital. Sam said that before the doors closed on the ambulance, several drinks were already waiting for him on the bar. A rousing celebration ensued, until, at about 4:30 in the morning, Sam decided to call his wife for a ride home. Thinking about how Sam’s wife must have felt when she answered the phone at 4:30 AM and heard her slightly-inebriated-miracle-worker-Medical-Examiner husband on the other end can help us understand the truth that dead people aren’t supposed to come back to life. Thinking about how Sam must have felt making that call, helps me understand the truth that when they do, we ought to celebrate.

Last we saw Jesus, he was dead. Really dead. Having cried out “It is finished,” he gave up his spirit. When the solider pierced his side, an unholy mixture of blood and water poured out from his suffocated lungs. Jesus was taken down from the cross, and after a moment alone with his mother, his body was quickly covered in spices, wrapped in linen, and placed in a freshly hewn tomb. The stone was rolled in front, a seal was made, and guards were set to watch 24/7 to make sure nobody stole the body of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was dead. Really, really dead.

Early on Sunday morning, a group of three women, Mary, Mary, and Salome, gathered to prepare the spices and ointments they would use to properly embalm Jesus. As they began their solemn procession to the grave, there was no thought in their minds that Jesus might be resurrected from the dead. Their worry was about who would roll the stone away from the tomb, not whether or not Jesus would be inside. There was no hope of resurrection that first Easter morning. The male disciples were locked up tight, while a small cadre of mourning women set out to ritually clean the body of their dead friend. As they approached the place where they last saw Jesus, something wasn’t right. The stone that they had worried about was already rolled away. A bit confused, they entered the tomb anyway, perhaps grateful that somebody had already done the challenging work for them. As they took stock of the situation, it immediately became clear that their friend is gone, and they were shocked. Dead people don’t come back to life.

Then suddenly, and angelic figure spoke to them and said the unthinkable, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.” If resurrections are something to be celebrated, then these women have a strange way of throwing a party, at least in Mark’s version of the story. Rather than running out to spread the good news. Rather than popping open champagne in celebration. Rather than experiencing the joy of the resurrection. Mark tells us that they were gripped with fear. That they fled from the tomb. That they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

That’s the way Mark’s Gospel originally ended, if the scholars are to be believed. It is an awfully unsettling way to end the book titled “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” People have tried to fix Mark’s Gospel, desperate to insert the truth that resurrections are meant to be celebrated. That we are here today means that somebody told something to someone, but Mark would have us sit in the awe and oddity of it all. Mark would have us wrestle, for just a little while longer with the truth that dead men don’t come back to life. In case you’ve forgotten, Jesus was dead. So dead that even some of his closest friends couldn’t imagine a way in which he could be alive. But now, Jesus is alive. Even some two-thousand years later, Jesus is still alive. He is active in our hearts and minds. He is at work in our homes, schools, and businesses. He is calling us to meet him in Galilee, where the resurrection will be celebrated and the Good News will be shared. He is calling us to believe the truth, the nonsensical, perplexing, amazing Good News that one dead man did come back to life, and in so doing, destroyed the power of death forever.

God took on flesh and lived among us in the person of Jesus Christ. God took all our suffering in through the Passion of Jesus and died. Really died. And on the third day, God did the impossible and brought Jesus back to life. That is the Gospel truth, and it is certainly worth celebrating. So, rejoice dear friends, and give thanks, for Jesus Christ is risen from the dead! Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!



“At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” – Mark 1:28

In our celebrity obsessed culture, it seems odd to me to think of Jesus as being famous.  Surely, he was well known and well respected, but famous?  Famous seems somehow unflattering or lacking the dignity and respect that it seems Jesus would deserve.  If Kim Kardashian and Kanye West are famous, then I’m not sure I want Jesus to be.  Yet, this is how he is described very early in Mark’s Gospel narrative.

The Gospel lesson appointed for Epiphany 4B follows immediately on the heels of last Sunday’s lesson in which Jesus begins his ministry and calls his first disciples.  This week’s story is about his first miracle in Mark.  It is the Sabbath and Jesus and his presumably less than 12 disciples have made their way to the Synagogue in Capernaum. As Jesus is teaching, an evil spirit speaks up from within a man possessed, and Jesus immediately rebukes the spirit, returning the man to wholeness.  It is the combination of his teaching with authority and his ability to rebuke the unclean spirit that leads Mark to tell us that Jesus’ fame began to spread.

Because of my discomfort with this word, I decided to look at it a little more closely.  I found that here the NRSV follows both the King James Version and Young’s Literal Translation in choosing fame, while more modern translations, perhaps with my concerns in mind, translate it as news.  The Greek word is akoe which is the noun form of hearing.  Idiomatically, it connotes news or word about something.  That is, after this miraculous event, people began to share what they had seen and heard.  Word spread rapidly, and yes, some might even say that Jesus began to become famous.

It is interesting to think about how this happened in a word so flush with information.  At any given moment, we have the opportunity to share within our sphere of influence news about all sorts of things.  Our social media feeds are basically giant evangelism machines.  We share reviews products, both good and bad.  We share posts that betray our political leanings.  We share stories of our kids and grand kids.  Some might even share news of their favorite famous person.  (How else would I know that Kim and Kanye’s second child is named Chicago?)  We share all kinds of things, which leads me to wonder, how might we effectively share the Good News of Jesus Christ through social media?  In the midst of all that is famous in our world today, what does the Gospel of Jesus have to offer?

This is not asking a question into a vacuum.  For the last two years, I have had the pleasure of serving on the General Convention Task Force for Leveraging Social Media for Evangelism.  In our meetings, these were the questions we pondered.  In our work, we tried to offer practical theology and real-world advice on how to continue to facilitate the spread of fame of Christ.  Our Report has been filed, and will be published soon.  I’ll share it as soon as I see it, but in the meantime, will you join me in considering what it means that Jesus was famous and consider how we too might share his story?

The Great Tears – a sermon

Today’s sermon can be heard on the Christ Church website, or read here.

One of the joys of my children getting older is that we can now watch shows that entertain across the generations.  Gone are the days of endless episodes of Curious George and Paw Patrol.  Now, in the evenings, we can all pile on the couch and watch something that everyone will enjoy.  One of our favorites over the past year has been Americas Got Talent.  The variety show format seems well suited for our wide-ranging tastes.  Musicians, dancers, stunt artists, you name it, on AGT someone who has tried to win a million dollars doing it.  My favorite performances of this past season were the street magicians.  There is just something amazing about close-up magic. The prestidigitation of the magician means that what you think you see isn’t really what you are seeing.  The thing you are paying attention to isn’t really the thing.

Mark’s take on the Baptism of our Lord recalled the street magicians I saw on Americas Got Talent because the thing isn’t really the thing.  Having just heard Mark’s introduction a few weeks ago, we’ve already heard five of the eight verses in today’s Gospel lesson.  We know about John appearing in the wilderness.  We’ve heard about the crowds who came seeking baptism for the forgiveness of their sins.  We can imagine John in a camel hair coat with a leather belt around his waist and a locust wing stuck in a bit of honey in his matted beard.  Mark spends five verses describing the baptism of John, but this story isn’t about John.

This story is really about the baptism of Jesus by John.  True to form, Mark is skimpy on the details.  We get none of John arguing with Jesus about whether or not he should be baptized, like we do in Matthew.  We hear nothing of Jesus’ personal prayer life like we do in Luke.  All we know is that Jesus came from Nazareth and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

It is a story about the baptism of Jesus, but it is also about a whole lot more.  The thing we should really be paying attention to comes next.  Sure, Jesus went into and out of the water, thousands of others had too.  What is remarkable is what happens immediately as Jesus comes up out of the water.  While Mark is directing our attention down here, the thing we really should be paying attention to is happening up there.  The heavens torn apart, the Spirit descending like a dove, and a voice from heaven declaring “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Mark is adept at hiding things in plain sight.  Despite beginning his Gospel by calling Jesus the Son of God, one of Mark’s key motifs is the Messianic Secret.  Again and again, Jesus commands his disciples and those whom he heals to not tell anyone what they have seen and heard.  Unlike in the other Gospels, in Mark, the words we all know well from Jesus’ baptism seem to be addressed only to Jesus, as if the crowd gathered at the river bank couldn’t see or hear what was unfolding.  As the reader, we get to see all the amazing details, even if they feel hidden among a bunch of superfluous content and sleight-of-hand.  Like the close-up magic of a street magician, however, if we pay careful attention to everything we are seeing and hearing, we can begin to understand what is really happening.  While our eyes are focused on the water, Mark’s deeper lesson is found in the great tearing of the heavens.

There are actually two great rips in Mark’s Gospel.  They bookend the ministry of Jesus.  The first, happens in our lesson for today, at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  The second comes just as he breathes his last breath from the cross.  Both are significant, not just because of what is happening in the moment, but because of what they signify in Mark’s larger theological scheme.

In this first great tear, we see the veil between humanity and God being removed.  In taking on human flesh, Jesus forever altered the landscape of humanity and divinity.  It is in this moment that the heavens show fully what God has done in the Incarnation.  From here on out, there is no difference between the sacred and the profane.  God is not an aloof deity, up in the sky, watching us like a divine security guard.  In the Incarnation, God permanently opened the barrier between earth and heaven, and brought the fullness of the human experience into God’s self.

Not only do the heavens being torn in two break the barrier between the human and the divine, but by tying this story with the beginning of creation in Genesis 1, we see that our own baptisms, following the model of Jesus’ baptism, take us all the way back to that very first moment when God turned chaos into order.  In the Hebrew, the word translated in Genesis 1.2 as “the deep” is tehowm, and it means deeper than deep.  It is the abyss, the chaos in which fear and darkness and death reside.  Nothing can exist in the deep.  It is formless and void.  Into that overwhelming nothingness, God speaks creation into being.  From the depths of chaos, God brings order.

If that isn’t a metaphor for our lives in Christ, I don’t know what it.  In our baptisms, through heavens torn asunder, God pulls us out of the overwhelming chaos of the world and brings us into the order of the Kingdom of God.  Yes, we still live our lives on this plane, where there is still sadness, darkness, and death, but in baptism, we are also welcomed into the Kingdom, where God brings all things into joy, light, and life.  In the water of baptism, we are welcomed out of the chaos, having been brought into the light.

As momentous as this is, the thing we are seeing still isn’t the thing.  The Messianic Secret won’t fully be revealed until the day of Jesus’ death.  The culmination of it all won’t come until the second great tear happens at the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  As Jesus breathes his last, Mark tells us that the Temple curtain, that which divided the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple, was torn in two from top to bottom.  While the tearing of the heavens looks back upon the moment of Creation, this tearing open symbolizes our ability to enter fully into the nearer presence of God.  Getting from earth to heaven is impossible on this side of the River Styx, but with the symbolic dwelling place of God on earth made accessible to everyone through the death of Jesus, all of humanity can now find themselves in the holiness of God.  As this second great tearing happens, it is a Roman Centurion who is the first to fully understand what has happened.  In words that echo the words Jesus heard at his baptism, the Centurion proclaims, “Truly this was the Son of God.”

Through the Incarnation of Jesus, God became present to humanity.  Through the death of Jesus, humanity has been made present to God.  These two great tears that bookend the ministry of Jesus have forever changed the landscape of our relationship with God.  No longer is God some far off deity, but rather, God is fully available to humanity.  The fullness of God is opened to us through these two rips in the fabric of creation.  Despite all the hurry and all the secrets in Mark’s Gospel that might distract our attention, the thing that Mark’s story is really about is how God has entered fully into the messiness of human existence.  Through Christ, God has called us from the darkness of the abyss to the light of the Kingdom.  In our baptism, we enter with Christ into the chaos of the waters of creation one final time before we are brought into the light of God’s love.

As you came up out of the water at your baptism, you might not have seen the heavens torn in two.  Maybe you didn’t hear God call you his beloved.  You probably didn’t see the Spirit descending upon you like a dove.  Yet, I believe that these things occur at every baptism.  Each time someone commits their life to the Kingdom of God over and above the chaos of this world, a party erupts, and all of heaven rejoices.  So, in case you didn’t hear it the first time, here’s the thing: You are God’s child, beloved, and with you God is well pleased.  Amen.

Torn Apart

There are two great rips in Mark’s Gospel.  They bookend the ministry of Jesus.  The first, which we will hear about in Sunday’s lesson, occurs immediately (get used hearing that word) after Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan River.  The second comes just as Jesus breathes his last breath from the cross.  Both are significant, not just because of what is happening in the moment, but because of what they signify in Mark’s larger theological scheme.

As Jesus came up from the water, the heavens were torn apart, and the Spirit descended upon him like a dove.  Mark, who is notoriously skimpy on the details, tells us that through the heavens rent asunder, a voice came and declared “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  This is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and yet, before he does anything, we already know all we need to know about him.  Jesus is the Son of God, beloved of the Father, and his faithfulness even in coming to the moment is well pleasing.  What is even more significant in this moment is that in having the heavens torn apart, the veil between humanity and God has forever been removed.  In taking on human flesh, Jesus forever altered the landscape of humanity and divinity.  As Athanasius said it, “God became man so that man might become God.”  It is in this moment that the heavens show what God had done in the Incarnation.

As momentous as this is, another great tearing occurs at the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  As he breathes his last, Mark tells us that the Temple Curtain, that which divided the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple, was torn in two from top to bottom.  While the heavens being torn open is representative of God’s willingness to become human, this tearing open symbolizes our ability to enter into the nearer presence of God.  Getting from earth to heaven is impossible on this side of the River Styx, but with the dwelling place of God on earth made accessible trough the death of Jesus, all of humanity can find themselves in the holiness of God.  This is, as anyone who has seen Raiders of the Lost Ark can attest, a dangerous thing, and yet God has made it so.


Through the Incarnation of Jesus, God became present to humanity.  Through the death of Jesus, humanity can be made present with God.  These two great tears forever change the landscape of our relationship with God.  No longer does God seem like a far off deity, but rather, God is made fully available to humanity.  The fullness of God’s love, God’s grace, and yes, the dangerous stuff of God’s holiness, are open to us through these two rips in the fabric of creation.  Thanks be to God.

The Good News – a sermon

People were desperate for some good news.  It was somewhere around the year 540 BC and the people of Israel were exhausted with grief.  For more than forty years they had been in exile in Babylon.  Jerusalem and the Temple of Solomon lay in ruins.  Their home country had been destroyed, and foreigners had been brought in to settle their land.  In Babylon, they served a king who demanded that they worship false gods, and they worked as slaves.  They were hopeless, unable even to lift their instruments to sing the songs of their faith.  They were desperate for some good news when God spoke to the prophet Isaiah and said, “Comfort, O comfort my people.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”  What follows is the good news of Israel’s impending restoration.  Soon, they will be allowed to return to the land promised by God to Abraham and begin rebuilding their lives.

Something happened not long after their return to Israel, however.  For 400 years, the voice of God went silent.  The prophets who had been so prevalent before and during the exile went mute.  The long-awaited restoration was short-lived as outside kingdom after outside kingdom ruled over them.  The people were starving for the Word of God when a man began to preach out in the wilderness.  They were reminded of those words of hope from Isaiah: a promise of restoration that brought with it word of one who was to come, a voice that would come from the wilderness and say, “prepare the way of the Lord!”  A voice that would declare the power of God in the midst of life’s uncertainty.  A voice that would call upon the people to forsake their sins and turn toward God’s will for God’s creation.

After four hundred years of silence, God called John the Baptist into the wilderness to proclaim freedom from bondage and fear.  John’s dress was like that of Elijah, the prophet who was to return ahead of the Messiah, and he called on the people to change their ways.  For the Hebrew people, their occupation by the Romans was a sign of God’s punishment.  In John the Baptist, for the first time in 400 years, the people heard a message of hope for God’s reign to return to their land.  So, they came in droves.  By the hundreds and thousands, they came from Jerusalem and all the surrounding countryside to see the long-awaited prophet who was baptizing them for the forgiveness of their sins and inviting them to prepare their hearts for the one who was to come.  It is there, Mark tells us, that the Good News of Jesus Christ begins.  In the hope-filled promise of God to a people in exile, bondage, and sadness the Gospel of God gets its start.

I don’t want to be overly dramatic, so I won’t say that I am desperate for good news, but I honestly wouldn’t mind hearing some. It’s been a rough few weeks here at Christ Church.  While the rest of the world is rejoicing in the Christmas season, I have been deep in the throes of Advent.  Blue vestments may be a symbol of hope, but blue is also the color of mourning.  Purple candles may remind us of Christ’s royalty, but they also shine bright with a call to repentance.  Twice this week, we lit the Christmas candle all by itself as a replacement for the paschal candle, trying to remember to celebrate resurrection while mourning dear friends who have gone to larger life in God.  It’s been a tough few weeks, and so I’m thankful for the Good News that Mark brings, and I’m especially thankful for the strange way it starts.

I think Mark must have known that people have always and will always need to hear good news, and so he begins his gospel with a very peculiar opening.  It certainly doesn’t start at the beginning.  Luke starts at the beginning, with the Annunciation to Mary that she will bear a child, her Visitation to Elizabeth, and the beautiful birth narrative filled with shepherds watching their flocks by night, angels bringing good news of great joy, and babe, born in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.  Luke is great at beginnings, and so we read from Luke every Christmas.  Likewise, John’s Gospel starts at THE the beginning. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” John takes us to before the beginning where all that existed was God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to tell the grand story of God’s plan of salvation.  Matthew lands somewhere in the middle.  By giving us Jesus’ genealogy, he places the story within the larger framework of God’s salvation history, while also giving us the familiar stories of Joseph’s dream and the visiting wise men.  Mark, on the other hand, doesn’t start at the beginning.  Mark starts somewhere in the middle.  Mark starts some five hundred years after the Good News of Isaiah, in the wilderness, with a wild preacher named John crying out, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

I think Mark starts the way it does so that every person can find their place in the story of God.   I think that maybe we are invited to jump into this story with our whole selves, and the only way to really do that is to be thoroughly discombobulated.  In our confusion, we have to spend some time getting our bearings.  Who are these characters?  What is the Isaiah quote telling us?  How does John’s appearance affect the story?  What about this one who is to come?  There won’t be much time to get settled, however.  Mark’s favorite word is immediately.  On forty-two separate occasions, Mark will use it to speed the story along.  This Good News of Jesus Christ the Son of God is too important to spend time lollygagging, it must be told with haste because there is not a soul in the world that does not urgently need to hear the Good News.

Mark frames his story as Good News, euangelion in Greek. The Greek u looks a lot like a v, which makes the jump to evangelism an easy one.  In a world desperate for good news, those of us who have been blessed to find it in our time of need, have no choice but to share it.  There may not be time to start all the way at the beginning.  Like Mark, our version of the Gospel of God may need to begin right were we are.  It may need to root itself somewhere in the middle of God’s ongoing story of redemption and restoration.  It may include strange characters doing strange things.  It might even take a little while to get to Jesus.  The key to evangelism is not getting caught up in how the Good News needs to be told, but rather to whom we should tell it.

People are desperate for some good news.  The world is badly in need of the Good News of Jesus Christ.  As our nation slides deeper and deeper into fear.  As those on the margins feel the edges of society slipping from their grasp.  As members of our community deal with grief, illness, and tough questions.  As we wait for God to come and set us free from our bondage to stress, anxiety, and fear.  We who have heard the Good News of God are expected to share it.  Mark’s strange beginning offers us an entry into the story of God’s salvation.  We are a part of the Good News of God.  We carry the story out into the world, showing God’s love in good deeds and telling God’s love by sharing the cause of our hope.  In every place where people need the Good News, God is there in the person of a disciple of Jesus who carries the Good News in their hearts and on their lips. Anytime the hope-filled promise of God is shared to a people in exile, bondage, or sadness, the Gospel of God gets its start.  As we await the second Advent of Jesus, we are called to be the beginning of the Good News of God’s salvation for someone who needs to hear it.  To whom will you tell your story?  Amen.

Where to start?


I wonder if Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland, was a fan of the Gospel of Mark.  These words, that are spoken by the King of Hearts, seem to be the working agenda of the author of Mark’s Gospel.  It begins, maybe at a beginning, and it ends with an abrupt stop.

In the three-year Lectionary cycle, we hear the opening verses of only half of the Gospels.  The Episcopal Church has modified the Revised Common Lectionary such that every Christmas I we hear the prologue of John, which begins, famously, with “In the beginning.”  Mark’s prologue, which we hear read on Advent 2 in Year B, starts with a sentence that has no verb and then immediately (a word you will hear a lot this year) jumps past any genealogies, annunciations, visitations, birth narratives, and early Temple visits, to the voice of John the Baptist, crying out in the wilderness “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

It is a strange beginning.  The ending, which we will deal with in the Spring, is stranger yet.  I can’t help but wonder, as I wrestle with several sermons in my brain, why Mark decided to begin the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, with this particular beginning.  Why start the story 30 years after it began?  Why begin with hodge-podge of Old Testament verses cited as Isaiah?  Why commence the Good News of Jesus Christ with the voice of John the Baptist?  Is there something to notice about how we are dropped into this story as it already begun to unfold?

I think there might be.  I think that maybe we are invited to jump into this story with our whole selves, and the only way to really do that is to be thoroughly discombobulated.  In our confusion, we have to spend some intentional time getting are bearings.  Who are these characters?  What is the Isaiah quote telling us?  How does John’s appearance affect the story?  What about this one who is to come?

The beginning of the Gospel of Mark isn’t much of a place to begin, but it is all we’ve got, and so, we start here, with the beginning of the Good News, and we wait to see what comes next.

Death and Taxes – an Easter Sermon

My Easter sermon can be heard on the Saint Paul’s website, or read on.

Death and taxes.  Every year, at about this time, I’m reminded of that old cliche that [outside of Baldwin County] the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. Whether you live in first century Palestine or twenty-first century America, you can be sure that (1) the government is going to get their fair share of your money and (2) dead people are going to stay dead.  Dead people simply do not come back to life.  And so it is, that early on Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome do the completely normal thing after their dear friend died late on the eve of the Sabbath.  Having procured the spices they needed for embalming, the women set out for the tomb to do the hard work of preparing Jesus’ body for his final rest.  As they made the journey from the downtown market out past the city walls to the cemetery near the hill called Golgotha, the silence of the walk was interspersed only with the heaving sobs of those whose hopes have been dashed.  Meanwhile the very real question of how they would even get into the tomb lingered around them.  Despite the fact that Jesus had three times predicted his resurrection on the third day, no one: not the Chief Priests, not the Apostles, and certainly not these women had given a passing thought to the possibility that Jesus might not still be dead come Sunday morning.

Dead people simply do not come back to life.  This fact is the reason we celebrate Easter at all.  The great anomaly in the life of Jesus isn’t that he was born in a cave or got lost in the Temple when he was twelve or was baptized at 30 in the Jordan River or that he preached about the Kingdom of God or even that he was killed on a cross as a traitor by the hands of Rome.  Jesus wasn’t the only person who did those things.  What is unique about Jesus is that he is the only person who rose from the dead after it was all over.

Unlike the women making their way to the tomb that first Easter day, we gather this Easter morning, fully expecting Jesus to be alive.  The tomb is going to be empty this year, just like it is every year.  I wonder, as you got ready to come to church today, did you gave any thought to the fact that dead people just don’t come back to life?  Have you thought about how ridiculous this story is?  Have you considered how hard it should be to believe that this man who died having been beaten, whipped, crucified, and speared was raised from the dead on the third day?  Does the difficulty of belief impact our lives in any real way?  Or, do we simply accept it at face value, and instead of giving it a moment’s thought, wake up early one Sunday a year, put on our seersucker suits and linen sun dresses, and come to Church to sing the usual favorite hymns, hunt for eggs, and perhaps most importantly, make grand-mama happy?

Dead people don’t come back to life. This is especially true when they don’t even know they are dead.  The fact of the matter is that most of us walk around dead most of the time.  We’re dead because we don’t know how to be fully alive.  We’re dead because we find it so easy to believe in the resurrection of Jesus that we don’t see how world altering it really is.  We’re dead because we fail to recognize the amazing gift God has given us in the resurrection of Jesus.  In the resurrection, Jesus invites the women, the disciples, and you and me to give up death and join with him in joy-filled Kingdom living, but you don’t have to take my word for it.

In the Collect for Easter Day, we pray that God would help us live in the joy of resurrection.  We pray this prayer because the world around us is not a world of joy or resurrection; it is, rather, a world of sadness and death.  Even those of us who don’t engage in the self-flagellation that is watching MSNBC or FoxNews 12 hours a day realize that the world is not as it should be.  Our Facebook feeds are filled with political diatribes, broken marriages, cancer diagnoses, and job worries.  Since the Great Recession, our workplaces are filled with less people doing more work on tighter deadlines with fewer dollars.  Our medicine cabinets are filled with drugs to combat hypertension from all the stress, high cholesterol from all the rushed McDonald’s drive-thru value meals, and attention deficit disorder from the myriad concerns pulling us in a thousand different directions.  The depression of Good Friday, we can understand.  The relentless waiting of Holy Saturday, we get.  The joy of resurrection on Easter Day is almost impossible to imagine…

…Which is why we pray to God for help.  Trying to give up death and live into the joy of the resurrection on our own is impossible, but through the grace of God, we are able to leave the tomb and live in joy more and more each day.  The resurrection is much more than a celebration of Jesus’ victory over death, it is our invitation into life: life in the Kingdom of God right here and right now.  As we pray for the joy of the resurrection, we ask to God to open our eyes to see his hand a work in the world around us.  We’re asking for the ability to see hope in the midst of hopelessness.  We’re asking for life in the midst of death.

Dead people don’t come back to life, but when Jesus does, it changes everything.  As the women arrive at the tomb and realize that the stone has already been rolled away, the whole world changes.  Jesus Christ is alive!  There is no resurrection encounter in Mark’s Gospel, only an invitation to return to Galilee to meet up with the risen Savior.  The invitation is as much for the disciples as it is for you and for me.  The risen Lord bids us to join him as he goes forth through time and space sharing the Good News that love always wins, that life after death is possible, and that everyone can join him in the community of joy.

Death and taxes may both be certainties in life, but Easter invites us to add one more item to that list: joy. The joy of the resurrection, the true joy of the Kingdom of God: that is what God promises each of us on Easter Day.  Joy beyond taxes, beyond death. Joy beyond all measure. Alleluia! Christ is risen!  The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!  Amen.

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ

Mark’s Gospel begins almost as strangely as it ends.  Remember that scholars believe that the actual ending of Mark leaves the women who had seen the risen Lord seized with terror and amazement.  Some of those scholars go further and attempt to get into the mind of the author of Mark’s Gospel, suggesting he leaves it open ended in order that the reader might turn back to chapter one and start over.  I’m not sure that’s why it ends so abruptly, but it works for this blogpost, so we’ll buy it for now.

When the reader turns back to chapter one, at least in modern Bibles, she is confronted with this as the first verse, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God.”  For a Gospel seemingly obsessed with keeping Jesus’ Messiah-ship a secret, the first verse or subscription or title doesn’t mix words.  This is a book that is 1) only the beginning of the story, 2) most definitely good news, and 3) about Jesus who is the Anointed One (Christ) and Son of God.  What strikes me then, is how this good news starts.

The good news of Jesus Christ starts with the Babylonian Exile.  That is, after all, where the quote from Isaiah comes from.  Isaiah 40 opens a new phase in the life of the people of Israel.  For 39 chapters, the prophet has been warning them of the doom to come.  Finally, after refusing to repent of their sinful and selfish ways, God destroys his own Temple, sacks Jerusalem and sends most of His Chosen People into exile in Babylon.  It is in the midst of this heartache, a fate so terrible that the people can’t even bring themselves to make songs anymore – they’ve hung their musical instruments in the tress (Psalm 137:2), God speaks to the prophet and says, “Comfort, Comfort my people” and “I am sending a messenger to prepare the way for the Messiah.”

The good news of Jesus Christ starts with Roman Occupation.  Mark’s audience is living a life of Exile in place.  They pay taxes with coins that violate the first two commandments.  The Temple of God, if it hasn’t already been destroyed when Mark puts ink to parchment, is the second tallest building in Jerusalem.  The palace of Herod, the Roman puppet king of Israel, is bigger.  The people are living out the judgment of God for their sinful and selfish lives when a prophet comes and says, “Prepare the way of the Lord.  Repent and be baptized.”

The good news of Jesus Christ starts in places that don’t seem very good at all.  It starts in the streets of Ferguson, MO.  It starts in the infusion room of the local cancer center.  It starts in the free breakfast line at Foley Elementary School.  The good news of Jesus Christ starts even at the grave as we make our song, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.  It starts in these seemingly God-forsaken places because God is there, and often that’s the only time we’re caught short enough to notice.  The good news of God has no beginning and it has no end, but it does have a place where we are able to enter in.