Friday, May 28, 2010

It's Just the Beginning

Before I get too far into my sermon, I thought you might want to know who is talking with you, which is easier said than done. I am giving you a first impression of sorts. Sure, some of you have already met me and, now that I am standing up here, all of you have either seen my face or heard my voice--or both. Now I have the opportunity to say what I want you to think about me.

I could introduce myself like I did during the Eco-Stewards program with a "credo," a few short statements of belief:
I believe that humans are a diverse community that can end all forms of oppression by the art, grace, and love of God.
I believe everyone is beautiful and carries the image of God in them.
I believe love and life are fun, which are best expressed in puns.

Or I suppose I could give you my geographic history: I was born and raised on the coast of Maine in a little town called Friendship. From there I moved to West Palm Beach, Florida for college. After receiving my bachelor's degree, I matriculated at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, NC, which is about one hour west of Charlotte. Given this geography, I think the mountains are beautiful and the ocean is sublime.

But what do you know about me from these introductions? You don't know I have a heart for the economically oppressed. You don't know if I am Presbyterian or not. You don't know why I am not wearing a tie or why my ears pierced. You don't know that I have spent over a year working on my thesis for my MA in English or that my thesis examines deconstruction in the orthodoxy/heresy binaries in the theological arguments surrounding the council of Nicaea and Willaim Paul Young's The Shack. You don't know if I've read the whole Bible and, if I have, how many times I've read it. In fact, you don't know me at all.

So how do I introduce myself? There is so much about myself I want you to know and, conversely, so much I don't want you to know. No matter what I say, you won't get an adequate picture of what I want you to know and whatever I want you to know is itself an inaccurate picture of me. If I introduce myself, you get only a persona, which is a word that literally refers to a mask or character played by an actor.

Sometimes the best way to get past the masks is to hear stories. Statements about someone cannot really sum up their being. I can tell you I believe love and life are fun, but until you see me enjoying life, that statement carries little to no meaning. And if I tell you a story about when my favorite seminary professor died suddenly at the age of 40 last year, then you might not believe I think love and life are all that fun.

No matter how well thought out a statement might be, it cannot accurately reflect the reality of who I am. The only way you can know me or anyone else is to get to know them through experience and story.

The gospels are a good example of this theory about story and identity. Whereas people like Paul makes statements about Jesus, the gospel writers want to tell about Jesus in carefully crafted and arranged stories. I can barely read Mark's gospel without thinking about the interactions between identity and story.

In Mark and the other Gospels, Jesus is often known by who is father is. But unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not start with a genealogy or a birth narrative, which would bring Jesus' identity into question in first-century Israelite culture, where your identity is closely to your ancestry. Instead of a genealogy or birth narrative, the gospel begins: "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God."

To begin with, Jesus is introduced in a statement, but one that needs more information. What does "the good news of Jesus" mean? Why is Jesus the Christ? What kind of Christ is he? What significance is there in Jesus being the son of God? Other parts of the Bible call lots of people the children of God, why would it be special for Jesus to be the son of God? Mark apparently places a lot of significance on this son-of-God title. Before the first chapter is over, he tells the story of Jesus' baptism where a voice from heaven says in what I can only imagine sounding like Charleton Heston, John Earl Jones, or Morgan Freeman: "You are my beloved son, in you I am well-pleased."

What really confuses me though, is that Jesus constantly refers to himself as something quite contrary; Jesus is always talking about the son of man. What is the big deal in being the son of man? Who isn't the child of a man and the child of a woman? And why does Jesus refer to himself as the son of man while Mark and some unclean spirits call Jesus the son of God?

And so we have stories about Jesus to give us a little more into the persona of Jesus presented in Mark. These stories mix Jesus' dual sonship to God and humanity. Amidst this confusion of sonship and all these stories, the disciples don't completely know what is going on either. Peter understands Jesus is the Christ, but he doesn't understand what Christ means. He misunderstands so much that Jesus calls him Satan. In response to Peter's misunderstanding, Jesus tells a crowd to deny themselves and lose their lives. Jesus asks them to give up their identities and personae.

Jesus embodies this command. It is a command to be like Jesus who "emptied himself" and allowed his identity as Christ to be crucified--not what anyone expected a messiah to be. It was only in offering his identity to God that Jesus created his own identity (cf. Philippians 2:5-11). The reality of Jesus Christ subverted the definition of messiah. And Jesus didn't simply go against the norm when he crucified his identity, he experienced the pain of giving up his selfhood. In the garden of Gethsemane he prayed for things to change. On the cross he cried out, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me? Jesus gave up his identity on the cross and felt alone, forsaken by God and humanity. He felt like the son of no one, let alone God.

By now the pain has seared into his innermost being. He can barely make coherent thoughts. All he wonders is where God is in the midst of his suffering. Although he cried aloud, he couldn't speak well from the pain and the dryness of his mouth. Some of the people near by thought he said "Elijah," not "Eloi." "How gravely humorous," these people must have thought. They thought Jesus was a nutcase, especially when he called out for a prophet who had been dead for centuries. Wanting to prolong this sick humor of theirs, they decided to satisfy Jesus' thirst. If they wet his throat a little, then he could cry out to Elijah and they might understand him better. So they soaked a sponge in sour wine, which is all the better for ridicule. He would want the liquid, but the sourness would just make things worse.

After, Jesus just yelled. "AH!" The cry might have been a knee-jerk reaction to the sour wine. It might have included a tinge of anger or annoyance at the people. A touch of desperation and tiredness was likely mixed in to that last note. I imagine Jesus was ready to just be done and die.

And Jesus' physical suffering ended. After that cry, his identity was completely a thing of the past, for he was dead. He was no longer the son of anyone except the grave. So much for a long awaited messiah. That hope could be put to rest with Jesus' body.

According to Mark's telling of the story, a curtain in the temple was torn from top to bottom about this time. There were a number of curtains in the temple and Mark doesn't exactly specify which one is rent in two--torn like Jesus' flesh, torn even like the distinction between being a son of God and a son of humanity. After Jesus dies, a centurion makes a confession much like Peter's: "Truly this man was the son of God."

In this confession, it turns out to be a child of humanity is to be a child of God. The centurion says Jesus was the son of God, but he was also a man, which means he must be a son of humanity. And Jesus goes on to do something no human does who is not embracing his or her humanity and godliness: he is raised from the dead.

After he is raised, two women go to anoint the body, but instead of Jesus, they find a man who asks them to spread the word of resurrection. But the women are surprised and afraid. Mark says they don't tell anyone, because of their fright and astonishment (16:8).

And the gospel ends with their silence. Sure, your Bible probably has 10 or more verses after, but you will probably also notice a note saying everything after 16:8 is not in the oldest copies of Mark's gospel, which isn't to say the added endings aren't proper for teaching or inclusion in the Bible. But, it can be healthy to look at the book without the added parts.

Listen to the ending: "They went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." It isn't much of an ending at all, and it is nothing like the other gospels' endings. It is quite likely the additions were added to tidy up this gospel a bit and give it a "proper" ending.

But I don't think it is supposed to have a neat ending. It isn't supposed to end at all. According to the first verse, the whole book is only the beginning of the good news about Jesus. Verse 1 isn't an introduction to the book, it is a summary of the book, which is why the book doesn't end. We read the last part of the book and we know eventually the women say something, contrary to the gospel's pseudo-ending. If they never said anything, that part of the story couldn't have been in the book, thus the women's continuing story is invited to be part of Jesus' continuing good news.

And so we are invited to become part of Jesus' continuing good news as we are to be Jesus' body here on earth.

We are to give up our identity, to crucify it with Jesus in all the pain and suffering he incurs. And we are to be resurrected without any identity other than our continual attempts to try and be Godly. We are to be children of God while we are children of men and women. The veil between us and Christ, between us and God is to be torn so that people can remember us and say, "Truly, those people are children of God."

I wish I could give you more specifics of what it looks like to crucify your identity and be a child of God and a child of humanity--to be Jesus on this earth, to continue in word and deed the good news he was spreading. If I tried, I would only be giving abstract statements like Micah 6:8: "do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God." Certainly we should do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God, but we need stories and experiences to know what that statement means. The gospel of Jesus is just beginning to explicate that statement in narrative. Church, what will we do to continue it, to give life to abstract statements like the one from Micah? What will we say and do in place of the silence of Mark's non-ending story?

Whether we like it or not, we are continuing the story Mark started. Sometimes we follow characterizations we learned from Mark's stories about Jesus. Sometimes our stories give a new glimpse of Jesus through the innovative movements of the Spirit and other times we miss the mark a little, basking instead in the forgiveness and mercy of God.

Since I cannot give you specifics, consider a story from my life, which will serve as a continuing the introduction I began:

This winter I worked at a homeless shelter for men in North Carolina. I worked Christmas Eve through much of Christmas day at the shelter. On Christmas morning I gave the normal 6-am wake-up call, because some of the men rely on that wake-up call like an alarm clock. I didn't ask them to get out of like I would on a normal day, though. I just let them know it was 6 am, in case anyone needed to be anywhere.

Around half of the guys got out of bed, two of whom came by the office where I was and asked to have a moment of my time. The men would come talk to me often, but they seldom prefaced it by asking for some of my time. I figured something was awry and I started to tense up, wondering if someone was hurt, if something had been stolen, or if these guys were going to rat someone out for having drugs or alcohol. And all this, on Christmas morning.

One of them asked me: "How did you get conned into working from 7 pm Christmas Eve through 2 pm Christmas day?" As the tension left my body, I couldn't help but smile, even though that question was enough to make me cry. These two men thought someone would have to be conned into spending that much time with them during the holidays. I don't remember exactly what I told them, probably something crass about how I didn't have anywhere else to be, since all of my family was in Maine. Or maybe I told them there was nowhere I would rather be, which was the truth.

The shelter provided Christmas gifts for everyone and I had the honor of passing out the gifts. A few weeks prior, each man filled out a piece of paper requesting two gifts of $15 or less. A few of the men complained, because they didn't get what they wanted, while others were very grateful, thanking me over and over, even though I had nothing to do with the purchasing or wrapping--I just handed things out. One of the guys told me he shed a few tears of joy, being overwhelmed by the gifts. He said he didn't expect to get so much. He got the same thing every other man got--a garbage bag with two or three large-ish gifts and then miscellaneous items like socks, gloves, and whatnot. I doubt the contents of the bag were worth more than $50, if that.

Around 8 o'clock that morning, a church group came by to serve a breakfast feast. They had biscuits and gravy, an egg casserole, coffee, and juice--all of it was hot, too, except the juice, of course. They brought in a radio to play music and they handed out small gift bags with lotion, chapstick, and a few other hygiene items. I told one of the ladies they did a great thing. Not only did they bring the breakfast, but they also visited with the men. Not only did the men get normal hygiene items like soap and deodorant, but also special items like lotion and chapstick, those not-so-necessary items so many of us take for granted.

None of the gifts or fellowship had strings attached. Usually we give gifts on Christmas to those who also give gifts to us, which is especially true with Christmas cards. If we don't receive a card from someone to whom we sent one, they come off of next year's Christmas card list. That church group that came into the shelter Christmas morning expected nothing in return from the men. A gift that expects a gift in return is not a gift, it is more like a payment or an exchange of goods. That church group gave to those who could not give back to them--they truly gave gifts, asking for nothing in return and with no ulterior motive. They just gave.

They didn't announce to the men they were from such-and-such a church. They didn't say they were giving because they felt guilty if they didn't. They didn't say they were serving because Jesus told them to. They forwent their identity in order to give themselves fully to the moment of service, justice, and love. The saddest thing about that Christmas morning was knowing how little attention the men would get when the holidays were over.

That story is just one of the many stories of the gospel today, one I am so glad I got to witness. If you listen hard enough, Xhurch, I'm sure you'll hear the gospel all over the place, perhaps in places you never thought you would. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus tells the story of the good Samaritan, emphasizing how the gospel will be found in unexpected places. Even Jesus was surprised where he found the gospel once when he found it in a centurion who asked for Jesus to heal his slave from afar.

Listen for it. Live it. Let us leave those around us with an impression of who we are and an impression of who God is, and let us give that impression in narratives, not propositions.

As for who I am, I hope this sermon was good introduction. There is still a lot you don't know about who I am and who I am becoming. If you're curious, I guess you'll have to ask questions and observe, looking and listening for stories.

It's just the beginning.

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