Awkward Endings & New Beginnings

by susan on April 26, 2017

This message was shared on Sunday, April 23rd and was based on Matthew 28:11-20.

This is how it ends – the gospel according to Matthew that is.

It ends with an interesting image lingering in our minds. However you imagine Jesus’s appearance (& dare I say there’s no way his skin was this white!), the artwork to your right (“Resurrection” by Szymon Czechowicz) depicts well the mixture of joy & worship, doubt & confusion present in those who first encountered the risen Christ.

These were Jesus’ closest friends & his most learned students & yet, even they did not expect him to come back to life.

What do we do with this rather awkward ending to the story of Jesus’ life, death & resurrection?

It IS awkward, isn’t it? And, not only because of the mixed responses.  It’s also awkward because it’s messy.

The first 5 verses of this passage never show up in the Lectionary or three-year cycle of pre-planned scripture readings, and it’s no wonder. They reveal the dirt of the religious institution, the stuff we’d rather keep well hidden. The Chief Priests, who were the overseers of the temple & the intermediaries between God and the people, are involved in a cover upa schemea scandal. They quickly come to a consensus that bribing the officers who were eyewitnesses to the resurrection is a necessary evil.

They knew that Governor Pilate would not appreciate being upstaged & so they did what was necessary to cover up the truth & to keep the peace. That’s how they respond to resurrection. Sadly, this is not the first or the last religious dirt that would need covering up.

So here in this awkward ending, there are mixed responses, there is mess, but there is also someone missing. Matthew is sure to tell us there are 11 disciples there to meet their risen Lord, not 12. It’s like a family reunion – only uncle Judas is not there and everybody knows why, but no one’s about to say it. What a strange detail to toss in – a stinging reminder of betrayal & brokenness that only adds to the awkwardness.

And, there’s one more thing. It’s awkward because it’s unresolved. We are not told whether the disciples follow Jesus’s one final set of instructions, his post-resurrection Manifesto we might call it. There is no number of baptisms or membership rolls. There is simply the miracle that this story made its way to us.

Are you familiar with this kind of awkward ending?
Do you know the feeling of never quite having everything settled?
Have you experienced the uneasiness of feeling elated on the one hand, but lingering resentment or guilt or worry on the other?

Times of change and transition and uncertainty can be hard. They can make us feel like we have nothing to offer, like we are just waiting for the next big wave to ride.

This may be an awkward ending, but it’s not an empty one.

Tucked into this awkward end to Matthew’s gospel is the mission that will define the future for these followers. We may not find out here whether they follow though, we discover in the Acts of the Apostles that they do.

The mission that Jesus entrusted to them is this:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ – Matthew 28:19-20, NRSV

If Mary Magdalene (who was our focus last Sunday) was the first preacher of the good news, this motley crew of doubting yet hopeful disciples were the first missionaries.

They were sent to make disciples. Disciples are learners of Jesus. Learners of Jesus were being sent to make more learners. They were sent to listen, to learn alongside, to live out the way of Jesus with their neighbors.

They were also sent to baptize. They were sent to initiate all kinds of people, people from every tribe and nation into living Jesus-centered lives. They were sent to be agents of re-orientation & reconciliation.

And, they were sent to be teachers. They were sent to teach the counter-cultural, alternative, kingdom-of-God way of life all while they were still learning it themselves.

Seriously, think about what a powerful moment this was for those disciples. Here they had abandoned Jesus, fallen asleep, denied & doubted him at the moment of his greatest need and yet, he was telling them to continue what he had begun.

He was telling them that they still had a purpose. He was giving them a new vision. He was inviting them to imagine…

to imagine what the world would look like if all nations practiced peace not retaliation, if everyone learned to love each other, to forgive, to include, to be honest, to share … it’s a vision for a world healed & renewed & through God’s power, these disciples would not only see it happen, they would be the vehicles for making it happen.

When we hear this text (aka the “Great Commission”), this is seldom the vision that comes to mind. Instead of a world being renewed, we see people being convinced, coerced or even scared into believing the gospel by fire & brimstone preachers & sleazy tv evangelists.

The Great Commission has been twisted into the Great Conquest. It’s been used to lord power over people, to create us vs. them relationships & to divide rather than unite –  even though we never saw this in the life of Jesus.

And because of that, we’ve gotten so turned off from sharing & being sent that we’ve shied away from it altogether. We’re more cautious with what we say and how we say it (& rightly so!). We’re more in touch with the harm we’ve done with our tactics & techniques, our too-simplistic 5-fold plans, Roman’s roads & patterns for a successful Christian life. And, as that narrow way of sharing comes to an end, we find ourselves uncertain, insecure & struggling with what it means to live out this mission & vision.

I imagine these were the same thoughts running through the minds of Jesus’ friends. Things were changing. They would no longer be doing exactly what they had done. They would no longer have Jesus physically with them and they would now have to learn a new way of being sent.

Is it possible that what feels like a terribly awkward ending is actually a new beginning?
That what seems like the end of a story is actually the start of a new chapter?
That what seems like the tale of Jesus’ remaining followers is really an open-ended invitation to all of us?

We are still being sent.

We are sent even with all of our unanswered questions, our skepticism, our failures and our disappointments to continue what Jesus began. We are sent to take the awkward ending to one era of Christianity and to experience a new chapter of God’s ever expanding story. We are sent to learn alongside, to listen & to share not to conquer or capture.

Are we willing  – even with all of our awkwardness – to still be sent?

As we look to the future, we may feel ill equipped and like we have nothing to offer. We may feel embarrassed of our past and wondering how we can possibly do anything new, but there is a promise in here for those who dare to be sent.

The promise is this: We are not alone. The power & presence of Jesus is with us as wherever we go.

When Believing is Hard

by susan on April 17, 2017

Words for the Journey for Resurrection Sunday based on
Matthew 28:1-10.

If ever there was a time when resurrection seems like a farce, like fake news, or like some made for TV reality show, it’s now.

Bombs dropped.
Refugees rejected.
Nations divided by war.
More gun violence, bad test results
& blows to already defeated people…
not to mention, our own doubts, cynicism, disappointments,
& experiences with a Christianity that looks nothing like Jesus.

If ever there was a time when resurrection seems like a scam,
an ancient myth, a made up fairy tale, it’s now.

It’s hard to believe.

It’s no wonder we may be ready to render this resurrection story useless,
to write it off or to get our Easter ritual worship over so we can rush on to brunch.

Let me offer some reassurance:

We are not alone in our disbelief.

While Matthew tells us two women did go to Jesus’ tomb, everyone else seems to have disappeared. Whether it was disbelief or not knowing what to believe, they are gone – either scattered, in hiding, they are outta here.

The two remaining witnesses are women & the fact that women are recorded as the first preachers of the good news is an Easter miracle in & of itself!

Sadly, one of their identities is not even clear enough or important enough to remember – “the other Mary” she is called. Little is confirmed about her – except that she dared to show up here – in this place of death.

Mary Magdalene is named. She also shows up.
We do know a few things about her.

The gospel according to Luke tells us that she is from the region of Galilee and that it was there that she had been delivered from seven demons. Whether her seven demons were symbols of severe mental illness or habits she could not kick, she had been set free, healed & delivered. And she had been journeying (literally) with Jesus ever since. She & a few other women had even been helping to fund his ministry (Luke 8:2-3).

She not only had a new identity, but also a new mission & a new community.

Luke also tells us that Mary was called “Magdalene”.

“Magdalene” could have been the name of her hometown. After all, Magdala is a town in Galilee. Luke, though, makes it sound more like a nickname – like the ones given to Jesus’ male disciples. “Magdalene” means “tower”. Towers are very visible, make great landmarks, and they also tend to stay in place when rough weather comes.

Perhaps she was a tall woman or maybe it was her persistent showing up, even in the darkness of this post-crucifixion morning, that explains her nickname.

Mary Magdalene was devoted.
She stuck around.
She believed.

While the other accounts of this story tell us women came to the tomb to annoint Jesus’ body for burial, Matthew’s account simply says these two women showed up to “see” the tomb.

They either weren’t yet ready to give up or in the face of all they had seen take place these past few days, they simply showed up because there was nowhere else they could imagine being.

They had cast their lot with Jesus – no going back now.

It’s here in this place of death,
where no one wants to go or be,
that the unimaginable happens.

First, the ground shifts beneath their feet. Then, a rumble. The Roman officers become like the dead body they were sent to guard. Then, the angel appears suddenly, out of nowhere. He rolls away the stone keeping Jesus’ dead body sealed away.

This is no hallmark card, fuzzy, feel good moment.
Terrifying things are happening in this place of death.

Even so, they are told not to be afraid. They are told that the one who had rescued them & set them free, the one they had seen crucified, is alive. He has been raised from the dead and because they dared to showed up, they would be the ones to run in fear & joy to share this world changing news.

Now, I do not think for one minute that these women left that resurrection encounter with the details straight or with a nice, neat set of beliefs to share with everyone they encountered on their way back. Nor do I think they now had a formula for their faith.

But, I do think they left convinced that something really important, something life-changing, something world-changing had happened. I think they left knowing deep in their bones that in some wild & mysterious way, the Jesus way is indeed the way that leads to life.

I think they left with a YES
to Jesus’s way – a YES
to loving enemies,
to serving, to sharing life with others,
to standing with the suffering.
to confronting injsutice!

I think they also left with a YES to their own Jesus-given identities – a YES
to being free,
to being loved,
to being chosen
& included,
to having a hope & a future!

They also left with unbeleivably good news to share & I believe these two powerful women have a message for us today.

As hard as it is to believe,
as hopeless as things seem sometimes,
keep showing up.

Show up even in – no, especially in places of death

There you will find that what Jesus began is still underway.

I visited a place of death a couple of years ago. The Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Museum is a place full of death mementos. It’s too much to take in, really.

Timelines of terrifying events,
details of concentrations camps,
dolls left behind by children hauled away
& horrible photographs you want to believe are photo-shopped.
Yet, this really happened.

I was one of the last of our group to leave, and as I walked to our tour bus, I was struck by a monument that towered above the exit path. This monument is taller than any other memorials & has been named the “Pillar of Heroism”. It stands on the highest point of Yad Vashem.

Even though it looks disturbingly like one of the smokestacks of a Nazi death camp crematorium, it is a tribute to all the men and women who persistently showed up, who risked their lives to rescue, to aid & to walk into the horrific suffering & death of their neighbors.

I left heavy, very heavy; and, also with a tinge of hope. I had seen that even there in one of the darkest places imaginable, where the worst of humanity is captured, there was a sign. There was a reminder. There was a symbol that something more powerful than death stirs us toward love & goodness, that something compels us toward care & compassion, that something draws us deeper into defending & standing in solidarity with the least of these.

Even there, there are witnesses to the Resurrection way.
There are towers that remind us to show up.

Instead of looking for all the reasons not to believe,
what if you and I began to show up even, no especially in difficult, death like places?

Like in our grief & in our anxiety,
in our failure & our disappointment,
like in our unraveled faith & our unraveling relationships.

What if instead of looking for proof of death, we looked for hope? for signs of life? for God to do what we thought was impossible?

What if we began to show up even, no especially in our neighbors’ difficult, death-like places? like in their sicknesses or their shame? like in their addictions or their aloneness? What if instead of looking for reasons to give up on people or write them off, we began to look for God in them?

Maybe we, too, would witness how even in the messiness of life in some mysterious & surprising way, God is there renewing, restoring & inviting us to enter his resurrection way of life.

This resurrection story ends with the Mary “Magdalene” & the other Mary encountering Jesus and falling at his feet. They are told to go & tell the disciples to head to Galilee. And, off they went.

It is believed that these two women helped to launch a resurrection revolution.

When it’s difficult to believe,
when our circumstances, our shifting faith or
our friends say “no way”…
Just keep showing up.

Even, no especially in places of death.

Show up & witness resurrection.

Top right artwork: “Resurrection” by Dr. P. Solomon Raj.

Holy Week, Bombs & Being Together

April 8, 2017

Here we are. About to enter another Holy Week. About to enter the suffering of a God who we believe suffers with us. It’s a tough week, if we take it seriously. If we make space to enter the suffering of Jesus, we find ourselves feeling discomfort, powerlessness & loss.   In a culture that resists […]

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Lessons in Avoiding Destruction & Leaning into Life

April 4, 2017

During our Lent Sunday gatherings, we’ve been challenged to move Deeper into the Way. The following message was shared on April 2nd & was based on Matthew 7:1-4, 12-29. In this final section of Jesus’ most famous, least followed series of teachings, he addresses one of our most burning questions. Where is the path that leads […]

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Free as a Bird

March 21, 2017

As part of our Lenten journey through the Sermon on the Mount, the following message was shared during our worship gathering on Sunday, March 19th, and is based on Matthew 6:19-34. — In what are we choosing to invest our lives? In a documentary entitled The Minimalists, AJ Leon tells part of his story. He was […]

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Being Rooted & Bent in Prayer

March 13, 2017

Words for the Journey – Sunday, March 12th 5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go […]

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Lent: Deeper into the Way

March 1, 2017

It was not until I was in early adulthood that I began to practice Lent. A season of reflection, a time to enter more fully into the suffering & death of Jesus, a period of reflecting on our spiritual journeys…Lent has taken on a different meaning each year. It’s always time set aside though, to practice being […]

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From New Laws to New Creation

February 14, 2017

Words for the Journey Sunday, February 12th The lyrics of A New Law by Derek Webb confront us with a serious question. Are we blindly following laws or are we living new lives? Don’t teach me about politics and government Just tell me who to vote for Don’t teach me about truth and beauty Just […]

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This Sunday at The Well: Refuge(e) & Hope

January 31, 2017

It’s not uncommon to hear people describe The Well as a home for spiritual refugees. We are a community that tends to welcome those who’ve left church & or been left out.  It had never occurred to me before our recent trip to Uganda, that maybe this is why we were drawn to partner with life-giving work […]

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Ready, Set … Reflect?

January 3, 2017

In a little less than a week, a small group of friends from The Well will travel to Uganda to learn & serve alongside a refugee ministry we’ve been partnering with for the past few years. We will tour the shelter we’ve learned so much about and help to register refugees for a new year […]

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