by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
1 April 2018
Back in November, the novelist Annie Proulx received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, basically a lifetime achievement award, at the National Book Award ceremony. She began her speech:
We don't live in the best of all possible worlds. This is a Kafkaesque time. The television sparkles with images of despicable political louts and sexual harassment reports. We cannot look away from the pictures of furious elements, hurricanes and fires, from the repetitive crowd murders by gunmen burning with rage. We are made more anxious by flickering threats of nuclear war. We observe social media's manipulation of a credulous population, a population dividing into bitter tribal cultures. We are living through a massive shift from representative democracy to something called viral direct democracy, now cascading over us in a garbage-laden tsunami of raw data. Everything is situational, seesawing between gut-response "likes" or vicious confrontations. For some this is a heady time of brilliant technological innovation that is bringing us into an exciting new world. For others it is the opening of a savagely difficult book without a happy ending.
After diagnosing the diseased time in which we live, she still concluded, "Yet somehow the old discredited values and longings persist. We still have tender feelings for such outmoded notions as truth, respect for others, personal honor, justice, equitable sharing. We still hope for a happy ending."
And then she read the poem "Consolation" by Wisława Szymborska which ends,
Hence the indispensable
the lovers reunited, the families reconciled,
the doubts dispelled, fidelity rewarded,
fortunes regained, treasures uncovered,
stiff-necked neighbors mending their ways,
good names restored, greed daunted,
old maids married off to worthy parsons,
troublemakers banished to other hemispheres,
forgers of documents tossed down the stairs,
seducers scurried to the altar,
orphans sheltered, widows comforted,
pride humbled, wounds healed over,
prodigal sons summoned home,
cups of sorrow tossed into the ocean,
hankies drenched with tears of reconciliation,
general merriment and celebration,
and the dog Fido,
gone astray in the first chapter,
turns up barking gladly in the last.
We hope for a happy ending.
When I read Proulx's speech last autumn, I found it encouraging, inspiring, and hopeful. But I also knew I had to save it for Easter Sunday 2018 precisely because on this Easter Sunday we were going to read the ending of the Gospel of Mark. And it is not a happy ending. It is precisely NOT the kind of ending that Annie Proulx and Wisława Szymborska believe we are longing for.
One wonders if it is an ending at all. The women flee in fear and tell no one what they've seen. New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III declares "Mark 16:8 is not good news." Jesus and his movement seem to have failed.
And because of this people have been trying to add an ending onto the Gospel of Mark pretty much from the beginning. Because there are no resurrection appearances of Jesus. There is no clear triumph or closure or Fido returning home at last.
And, yet, the ending of the Gospel of Mark is perfect. Let me tell you why.
Jesus imagined a different world. Better. Fairer. More Just. More Equitable. One designed to benefit those most often marginalized and excluded—the poor, the children, the sick, the disabled, the mentally ill.
And this world could be achieved with the birth of a New Humanity. A people committed to love and nonviolence. Where the highest value was service to others. And where mutual forgiveness became the practice that held the community together. He was creating a new family symbolized by open table fellowship.
But his dream of a reordered world was a direct challenge to the powers-that-be. And Jesus took that confrontation right into the heart of the powers, to the Temple in Jerusalem and there he engaged in a direct action campaign which the powers viewed as a threat and so they killed him like the Romans would any insurrectionist, by crucifying him.
Jesus went to his death betrayed and abandoned. The solidarity he had envisioned broke apart under trial.
And that could have been the end of the story of a noble visionary cut down by the powers he challenged.
Instead the Gospel of Mark tells us that the women came to the tomb that Sunday morning to care for the corpse of Jesus, but what they found was an open tomb and the corpse not there.
But the tomb wasn't empty. There sat this young man dressed in white.
This young man, a follower of Jesus, appeared once before in this Gospel. He was there in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus was betrayed by Judas and arrested. He stayed after all the other disciples had fled, but when the authorities tried to grab him, the shroud he was wearing fell from his body and he escaped into the night naked.
The naked young man in the night symbolizes the followers of Jesus who in the resurrection will be set free from the powers of death. And here he returns to proclaim the resurrection—the vindication by God of Jesus.
Alone in the Gospel of Mark, we don't get Jesus appearing at some point to announce his own resurrection. What we do get is this disciple who proclaims that Jesus has already gone ahead of us and if we simply follow, then we will see him.
If you've been following along in the Gospel of Mark with us the last few months, then you know that seeing is one of the dominant themes of this Gospel. And for Mark seeing means to gain spiritual insight. To understand. It means to understand what God is doing through Jesus.
And it also means gaining spiritual insight about yourself as you follow on your spiritual journey. Reading the Gospel of Mark has compelled us to examine our fears and our willingness to be vulnerable in love. In doing so it has led us on an inward journey to gain insight about ourselves. And where we are on that inward journey is tested by the ambiguity, the uncertainty, the vulnerability of this ending.
Here at the close of the Gospel, the young man tells the women that if they follow Jesus, then they will see him. If they go forward with faith, with imagination, with confidence, that the values and ideals Jesus proclaimed and lived are the right way for us to live, that the world has been reordered, that a New Humanity has been born, that all things are being made new—if they live with that imagination and confidence—then and only then will they see Jesus.
So, it's kind of backward from what we are used to. And from what the other three Gospels give us. Usually we want to see something first, have good evidence of it first, and then we'll commit ourselves to it. But that's not what the Gospel of Mark offers. You first have to follow in faith and then you'll gain the ability to see, to understand.
What kind of fools does Mark think we are?
Today is, of course, April Fool's Day. Popular culture has made great hay with the idea that Easter Sunday is Fool's Day.
But we realized it months ago and were pretty excited about the coincidence. Because Easter is pretty foolish.
The entire Gospel tradition invites us to believe a series of absurdities and to then make them the very power by which we live our lives.
Our faith contends that divinity is revealed and the salvation of the world is achieved in the execution of an all-too-human Jewish peasant street preacher, miracle worker, and prophet of the end times.
It is an absurdity to believe that God was incarnate in the life and death of the historical Jesus. The moment it becomes easy to believe this claim, the moment that it seems rational and explainable, then you have robbed it of its power and you are on the way to losing the passion of your faith. It is foolishness.
And from there the foolishness abounds. A group of illiterate, undisciplined fishermen are to spread the gospel. A group of freed slaves are God's chosen people. Despite all appearances to the contrary we are to believe that the universe is bending toward justice. And God is on the side of the weak, the oppressed, the poor, the slave, the neglected, the other. Crazy talk, all of it. From Genesis to Revelation.
In their now classic book Resident Aliens, Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon wrote, "Christianity is an invitation to be part of an alien people who make a difference because they see something that cannot otherwise be seen without Christ."
So, Happy April Fool's Day, you beautiful, foolish people.
The reason the Gospel of Mark has a better ending than any of the other gospels is because it understands precisely what must happen if the good news of Jesus Christ is going to continue to change the world--We have to wrestle with our own fears so that we can become the story.
Michael Coffey, a Lutheran pastor in Austin, Texas, wrote in an essay on this ending that its power is "its ability to leave the reader in a state of wonderment, dissonance, and deep inner questioning. . . . The ending challenges the reader: Go wrestle with this! Listen to your own inner struggle with fear and your own desire to trust God's resurrection good news."
As such, he thinks this is the perfect ending for our "deep, cynical, pessimistic, despairing moment" because this ending says "to keep wrestling with it." If we want the happy ending, then we have to write it ourselves by our choices, by the decisions we make, and the actions we perform.
After reading this Gospel have we gained the insight to understand what God wants of us? Do we have the faith, the imagination, the confidence to follow on that way? Will we continue the work of Jesus in the world?
The Good News of Jesus Christ, that only began here in the Gospel of Mark, is open-ended and on-going, and we are invited to write the next chapter in the story. To become the story. Jesus has gone ahead of us, and we are to follow.
And if we do, then we will see him. If we live as God has called us to live, then we will come to understand that Christ has risen and lives among us, empowering us to carry on the work.
This Gospel ends by going back to the beginning. Jesus is going back to Galilee to where it all began. He's going home again.
And like all the great journey stories the hero's journey always leads back home but the hero and home have both changed. They are transformed into something greater.
The Czech poet Vladimir Holan wrote a resurrection poem that seems to best fit with Mark's Gospel.
Is it true that after this life of ours we shall one day be awakened
by a terrifying clamour of trumpets?
Forgive me, God, but I console myself
that the beginning and resurrection of all of us dead
will simply be announced by the crowing of the cock.
After that we'll remain lying down a while . . .
The first to get up
will be Mother . . . We'll hear her
quietly laying the fire,
quietly putting the kettle on the stove
and cozily taking the teapot out of the cupboard.
We'll be home once more.
The world has ended, and we've awakened on an ordinary day at home. But we are different now because we have seen Jesus. What will we make of this day? How will we live differently? How have we become a New Human Being?
The Naked Young Man
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
Good Friday: Passion Stories
30 March 2018
When Katie e-mailed the participants in tonight's service, she listed what roles we would each have. The list said, "Naked Young Man—Scott Jones." I felt the need to Reply All that I did not, in fact, plan to be naked tonight. You are glad, I'm sure that I've carried through on that promise.
I did feel that someone missed a great opportunity for a joke. Someone should have replied, "We didn't think so Scott, since it said 'young man.'"
But wait, there's a naked young man that's part of the Passion story? Indeed there is. Only here in the Gospel of Mark. And it's a rather important role the naked young man plays, as he reappears in the tomb on Easter Sunday, but you'll have to wait a couple of days for me to say more about that.
This character is a reminder of a flaw in our religious understanding. We synthesize the narratives of the Four Gospels in such a way that the specific details are forgotten. Tonight we are, instead, reading in detail the narrative as told by only one Gospel writer, and so we encounter this overlooked, but significant character—the naked young man of Mark.
If you are reading along in the Gospel and get to these verses and are surprised and confused, then good. Because this odd little detail is supposed to be mysterious. A mystery that isn't resolved until the Easter morning narrative. But there are a few things we can discern about this mysterious character.
First, this is one of many clues in the Gospel of Mark that the author isn't telling a factual history. He is composing a story that has goals and purposes. We know that because in actual fact no naked young man would have been walking around with Jesus and the disciples wrapped only in the kind of cloth used as a shroud.
Yes, that's the actual meaning of the word translated here "linen cloth." The young man is wrapped in a shroud. The kind of cloth they used to cover corpses. The same kind of cloth that Joseph of Arimathea will use to wrap Jesus in after the crucifixion.
So, we are dealing with a symbolic character. This naked young man symbolizes something. What does he symbolize?
In the early Christian church baptisms were usually performed at dawn on Easter Sunday after the candidates spent all of Lent in preparation and catechism. And at those Easter Sunrise services the candidates for baptism were naked. Representing dying to the old self and rising again into new life. Becoming a new creature. A new human being. Baptism still symbolizes death and resurrection, though we've prettied it up.
This naked young man represents "a disciple" and therefore "all disciples."
And in this moment, he runs away. We aren't told whether his running away is a good thing or a bad thing. Does he run away in fear and faithlessness? Or does his escaping capture symbolize the freedom from death that all disciples achieve in the resurrection? I'm going with the latter meaning myself. Here, at the darkest moment of the Gospel, is a foreshadowing symbol of the resurrection.
A few decades ago a biblical scholar announced that he had discovered a lost portion of Mark that included one more story of the naked young man, set before the arrest in the Garden. Scholars now generally believe that story is a hoax. But before they arrived at that conclusion, the story opened up exciting possibilities. The young man is one whom Jesus raises from the dead, and he later comes to Jesus naked, covered in this cloth, and he spends the night with Jesus who "taught him the mysteries of the Kingdom of God." The text was fraught with homoerotic possibilities.
God wants us to become our best selves. To be set free from what excludes and harms us. To be empowered with the confidence of God.
My own passion story identifies with this young man. I was once imprisoned in the closet of homophobia. I lived in fear and that fear meant I was dishonest and lacked integrity.
And finally, at the age of 29, I arrived after much prayer at a moment of decision—I would explore what it meant to be a gay man.
And the years that followed contained Good Friday moments—when I feared for my job and career, when my sister abandoned me, when I struggled to find love, when I sunk into depression.
But it also contained Easter moments. Moments of sublime joy, love, acceptance, wholeness.
I became a new self. One with integrity and courage and a stronger faith.
And I have always understood this as a passion and resurrection story. I was stripped of what was holding me back. I died to my old self. And I was reborn.
The First Word
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Kountze Memorial Lutheran Church
30 March 2018
"How do I forgive?"
As a pastor, I've been asked that question a number of times. Usually by some church member seated on the couch in my office, who has come to me for help. She or he is often an active member of the church. They are often smart and successful. The kind of people who attack a problem by figuring out the solution and then implementing it with force of will.
But forgiveness eludes them.
They know they are supposed to forgive. They know it not simply as a religious or moral duty; they also understand the personal psychological value. And they want the restored and reconciled relationship that awaits on the other side of forgiveness.
But try as hard as they might, they can't bring themselves to forgive. The pain was too severe. The trust can never be restored. They don't want to risk making themselves vulnerable again. Not only do they fear being hurt again, I suspect they fear being made a fool.
I often share some reading material. There are excellent books on forgiveness, by great theologians. I've found them helpful in my own life.
But even if we understand the concepts, forgiveness does not get any easier.
In order to atone for our sins, we are instructed to go to the person we have hurt and confess our wrong and seek their forgiveness. And, alternatively, we are taught that if we are the wronged person, we are to offer our forgiveness freely even to the person who has done nothing to earn it. Especially to the person who has done nothing to earn it. That's called grace, and it is sometimes impossible for us.
For Jesus, this practice of mutual forgiveness leading to reconciliation is what will bring the new humanity into reality. Only when we learn to fully embrace this method of atonement will we as humans escape our violent tendencies and learn to live as God has intended us to live.
But, in the meantime, we continue to be violent and vengeful and to hurt one another.
I wonder what we need to be forgiven, that we do not know we are doing?
I'm guessing most of us here on a Friday afternoon attending this solemn ceremony are people devoted to our faith and living ethical lives as we understand them. We strive to understand our duties and live up to them. We are willing to look at our failings, to repent of them, and work to overcome them.
And, yet, this First Word compels us to ask difficult questions.
What are we doing wrong that we don't realize we are doing wrong?
What have we done that we shouldn't have? What have we left undone that we should have done?
Such questions make us feel anxious and guilty and most of us, I suspect, don't really like feeling anxious and guilty.
In her great little book Speaking of Sin, Barbara Brown Taylor writes:
Deep down in human existence, there is an experience of being cut off from life. There is some memory of having been treated cruelly, and—a little deeper, perhaps—the memory of having treated someone else cruelly as well. Deep down in human existence there is an experience of seeing the light and turning away from it, either because it is too beautiful to behold or because it spoils the dank but familiar darkness. Deep down in human existence there is an experience of reaching for forbidden fruit, of pushing away loving arms, of breaking something on purpose just to prove that you can. Deep down in human existence there is an experience of doing whatever is necessary to feed and comfort the self, because there is no one else to trust, no other purpose to serve, no other god to follow.
Yes, we don't like to look that deeply into ourselves to see how sin has corrupted us, to see where we need to be forgiven.
This First Word reminds me of what Paul wrote in Romans 7: "For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me."
The longstanding idea of moral education is that if we learn what the right thing to do is, that we will then do it. This idea equates wrongdoing with ignorance. Fix the ignorance and right behaviour will follow.
But philosophers long ago realized that notion is naïve. Aristotle taught the weakness of the will. We can know the right thing to do and intend to do the right thing, yet our will can be so weak that we fail to follow through.
Paul, however, thought the problem was even worse than that. We are enslaved by sin in ways that we do not even realize. Even our best intentions and otherwise good actions can be corrupted by sin.
So, what's an example? What is the type of sin that can enslave us in ways we do not fully understand, corrupting our thoughts and actions?
I grew up in northeastern Oklahoma in the small town of Miami, spelled the same as the city in Florida, but pronounced correctly.
And it was almost exclusively white. In my grandparent's time there had been a sign at the city limits warning black people—though that wasn't the word that was used—to stay away after sunset.
I did not grow up in an explicitly racist home. Far from it. My Baby Boomer parents viewed themselves as progressive on racial issues, as compared with their parents and the time they had grown up.
But I still grew up in a place with a long history of racism and white supremacy. And that culture was a part of my wiring. Occasionally I am startled by a horrible dark racist idea that will surface from my unconscious. Will Willimon writes about how our sin can be so dominant in our society "that it just seems normal."
I have been compelled to grasp the ways that the racism of the culture I grew up in has affected my own thinking. The ways I have benefited from a culture of white supremacy and white privilege to the detriment of my sisters and brothers of color.
And so Romans 7 is written for me. "I am sold into slavery under the sin of racism. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate."
And so I hear the words of Jesus from the cross, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." And I know that my Lord and Saviour is speaking about me. I am guilty of sins that I do not fully comprehend. I stand in need of forgiveness.
Praise God, that through Jesus, my racism has not been held against me, and that God has loved me despite my wickedness. Praise God that I am offered the opportunity to gain understanding, to repent my sins, and be forgiven. Praise God that even I am welcomed into the new humanity.
Love Is Scary
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational UCC
18 March 2018
This Lent we have been "Practicing Passion." On the first Sunday of this season, I quoted Kenda Creasy Dean describing "The burning desire to be engulfed by love, to be ignited by a purpose, to radiate light because the love of another shines within us."
But that kind of passionate love is only possible for us if we are willing to take the risks. The risks of being vulnerable, of not being fully in control, of surrendering our selfishness, of trusting God and other people, of being willing to serve and sacrifice, of giving and forgiving.
Love is scary.
To follow in the way of Jesus is to follow the way of the cross. And many of Jesus' followers are simply unable to take that risk. Something gets in their way. We might be like the young man whom scholar Herman Waetjen describes as "petrified and invulnerable, afraid to expose himself to the uncertainties and insecurities of the future," and so walks away from Jesus.
Which is why we have to be like children. Repeatedly in the previous chapters of this Gospel and in the last three weeks of sermons we have preached, Jesus has talked about children as a model for what it means to follow God's way. Scholar Herman Waetjen writes, "To receive God's rule like a child depends on the qualities of vulnerability and trust, transparence and defenselessness, integrity and wholeness, expectation and humility."
[Excursus on being loved by a child]
But we have lost that sort of trusting love, haven't we? We've loved and lost. We've loved and had our hearts broken. We've loved and been hurt by the one we loved.
But just imagine if we could be healed of all that heartbreak and love again with childish trust and joy. Bartimaeus is like that. He follows Jesus with a wild abandon. Can we be like him?
One of the more intriguing books I've read in recent years was The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis. I've long been a fan of Lewis because of the role that The Chronicles of Narnia played in shaping my imagination, theology, and spirituality since childhood.
But The Great Divorce is not an example of good fiction. It is too didactic and Lewis can get too polemical about the things that annoy him.
Yet, despite the novels flaws, it reveals a profound truth.
The novel imagines hell as a place drab and boring—no lakes of fire or pitchforks. And some of the residents of hell get to visit a midway point between their residence and heaven and some of the saints come down to engage with them and invite them into heaven. But most resist. They are unwilling to surrender some part of themselves or refuse to trust or love or rejoice.
In Lewis's vision the only thing that separates one from true bliss is one's own refusal. One of his characters says "No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it."
Lewis's story clearly has implications for earthly existence. People unwilling to choose joy and love will not experience it. You must choose them. And you can't choose them on your own terms, you have to surrender yourself and your control and let love work its magic upon you.
So here's the good news:
The salvation God is offering us means we can get rid of our defensiveness, our cynicism, our negativity, our fear, our greed, our hatred, our violence, our despair, our hopelessness, our lack of trust, our sloth, our lack of grace.
And instead we can become creatures of freedom, joy, beauty, trust, integrity, wholeness, humility, generosity, faith, hope, and love.
Wow! Sign us up.
But between here and our joy lies the cross. The risk, the heartbreak, the pain.
In her book Journeys By Heart, theologian Rita Nakashima Brock teaches us that it is through this experience of pain and suffering that we develop resilience that connects us with others and find our power that "makes and sustains life".
So, what kind of love is truly powerful? The kind that loves like a child with wild abandon and trust and joy after the experiences of pain and heartbreak. The kind that knows love is scary and yet loves freely anyway. The kind that knows the risks and does not fear.
Take heart; get up, for Jesus is calling.
Breaking the Numbness
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Trinity Episcopal Cathedral
Called to Action: A Day of Lamentation and Vigil Against Gun Violence
14 March 2018
I must confess that last month when I first heard the news of the shooting in Parkland, I was numb. These mass shootings have become such a regular feature of American life that my reserves of grief and anger ran out long ago.
But in his masterful work The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann tells us that numbness is a significant problem. There is a royal consciousness and a prophetic imagination, and the royal consciousness wants to maintain the unjust status quo by keeping people numb so that they can be managed. The prophets want us to imagine a new, different, and better world, but in order for us to imagine, we must first break the numbness by grieving. Brueggemann writes that "weeping permits newness."
So I was pleased when I heard this event would occur today and that we would be challenged to break the numbness through lamentation.
Last week I received my scripture assignment for today, and Zephaniah 3:1-5 was not one of those passages I memorized as a child in Southern Baptist Sunday school, but when I looked it up, I immediately recognized its appropriateness for today. The leaders of society, both political and religious, have failed to enact the justice of God and shame upon them. They will receive God's judgement.
At First Central Sunday I was preaching on the story in the Gospel of Mark when Jesus tells the disciples that whoever wants to be a leader in the way of God must welcome and serve the children. As I prepared these two sermons, they were in conversation with one another. The justice of God that our leaders have failed to enact is the service to our children.
Then I read in the newspaper about bulletproof backpacks. This news made me angry. This is not the world we want.
Our faith tradition should guide us in understanding the current issues we face and give us a sense of how to resolve them. There is a clash of values and priorities in the current school safety and gun debate, but it seems clear to me that from reading our faith tradition that the value which should gain priority is the safety, security, and wellbeing of our children.
Instead our society has created an idol out of the Second Amendment and guns and to this idol we are sacrificing our children. Shame upon us. We stand in judgement from God.
So today I hope you will join me in breaking out of the numbness. Let us grieve. Let us get angry. For our grief and anger can turn into action on behalf of the justice of God. We must save our children.