Sermon: “Go Back to Galilee”
A reading from the Gospel According to Mark, chapter 16, verses 1 through 8:
When the Sabbath was over, Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought perfumed oils so that they could anoint Jesus. Very early, just after sunrise on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb.
They were saying to one another, “Who will roll back the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked, they found that the huge stone had been rolled back.
On entering the tomb, they saw a young person sitting at the right, dressed in a white robe. They were very frightened, but the youth reassured them: “Do not be amazed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, the One who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. Now go and tell the disciples and Peter, ‘Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee, where you will see him just as he told you.’”
They made their way out and fled from the tomb bewildered and trembling; but they said nothing to anyone, because they were so afraid.
For the Word of God in Scripture,
For the Word of God among us,
For the Word of God within us,
Thanks be to God.
Our friend Christina Holdiness, on reading the e-mails about the series on demons, said they reminded her of the five stages of grief. Many of the sins – gluttony, lust, pride – represent denial. Some people are angry. The fearful person will bargain with whatever authority she thinks can prolong life. I, of course, get sad. And, if you successfully dispatch all the demons, putting them under the right order of reason, you have acceptance. Christina further suggested that this might be the whole function of religion: a way of coping with the fact that we are going to die. For Christians, Easter, the resurrection, is the highest and most direct means of confronting that reality.
In the church of my youth, Christmas and Easter were the only holidays. We zip along from birth to rebirth with not much in between but our own degradation. We are all bad and God is all good, always triumphing over sin and death. Only high points. Now we spend Advent anxiously awaiting the time when God will come in and finally, finally fix everything. All the injustice, all the oppression, all the pain and suffering, will finally go away. At Christmas, God comes into the world, incarnate, as a real, embodied human being. Jesus shows up, lives his life, and dies. In fact, he dies in a horrifying act of injustice, the victim of the very thing he was supposed to fix. But it’s okay because we have Easter. Yay, Easter! Jesus is risen indeed! In the resurrection, we learn that God ultimately wins, that good ultimately triumphs over evil. Now, everything will finally, finally be made right. How’s that working out? In focusing on Christmas and Easter we forget what we all really know: the beginning of one thing marks the end of something else.
The Christian calendar is arranged like a Mobius strip, the twisted strip of paper that creates an endless loop. We trace the same ground every year passing through Christmas and Easter, but also passing through Advent and Lent. People often forget that Advent is not only the time of expectation for the birth of Jesus, but a celebration of the return of Jesus as the eschatological judge, the one who, according to Jewish apocalyptic tradition, will separate the righteous from the unrighteous. The righteous will inherit a new earth, restored to God’s intentions for justice and peace. Advent, as much as it is anticipation of the beginning of things, is also the end of all things.
Lent, too, is a meditation on endings. This Lent, we told fanciful tales of demons that whisper evil thoughts in our moments of weakness. We mindlessly react to our passions, alternately ignoring them or indulging them. Instead, it was suggested, we should put what the ancients called reason, but we might call God, in charge. What ought to die with Christ is the personality, the ego that is only concerned with sustaining itself. In this death the real person, the spark of the divine within, can come out. This is the Easter for which we have longed during Lent: the raising of the true self. Death begets new life.
The early authors of Scripture had this same sense of time. Perhaps owing to the largely illiterate culture of the day and the rarity of the written word, they expected these texts to be read aloud, over and over again. John is a great example of this, using internal references that point backward and forward in the text to infuse it with a looping, interweaving structure. Readers of the Gospel of John are rewarded for continually rereading, plumbing its depths over and over again. Although Mark has for a long time been considered rustic and unsophisticated, recent scholarship has exposed the brilliant simplicity of the text.
Mark, like John, expects that this text will be read over and over again, though the author handles it slightly differently. Instead of focusing on repeated internal references, the author of Mark makes use of an inclusio, an envelope structure wherein sections of text and, in fact, the entire book, begin and end with the same wording. The envelope frames what is contained within. The text begins in chapter 1, verse 1, by telling us that it is the “The beginning of the good new of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” From there, the only people who ever use the phrase “Son of God” are demons, supposed outsiders. The disciples have no idea. At the end, a centurion makes the proclamation, “Truly this man was the Son of God.” The effect is to wrap the whole of Jesus life and death in this envelope that infuses meaning – that this is the Son of God – into the rest of the text. Whatever Jesus was doing, it was with God’s authority.
Mark employs a similar strategy in handling the resurrection. There are no resurrection stories in Mark, no further miracles, no further instructions. In fact, Mark claims that the women who found the empty tomb did not tell anyone because they were terrified. The book just ends with instructions to go back to Galilee. A very smart person, Dr. Jaime Clark-Soles, told us in class that geography is theology. Though he famously dies on a cross in Jerusalem, Jesus’ mission is in Galilee. Galilee is a collection of villages around the Sea of Galilee where Jesus grew up. It was a Jewish stronghold after the Maccabean revolt. In Jesus’ youth in Nazareth, he might have seen honest, hard labor in the face of poverty and some memory of independence from oppressive occupiers. In Galilee, he saw the needs of the poor and rose to meet those needs. And then, as we learn during Holy Week, Jesus travels from Galilee to Jerusalem and gets killed. It should not seem odd that, in the first Gospel, when Jesus dies and rises again, his disciples are told to go back to Galilee.
Like the Christian calendar, Mark loops us back around to the beginning, to Galilee. When his disciples are scattered, when everyone has given up and the women who were faithful to him are looking for answers, the angel tells them to go back to Galilee. If you want to understand Jesus’ death and resurrection, Mark tells us to go back to Galilee. The meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection can be found in Jesus life and mission in Galilee.
There are some obvious specifics about that mission that should be mentioned. In Galilee, Jesus cast out demons, rebuked the voices of death and shame that divide people against themselves and others. In Galilee, Jesus healed the sick, restoring them to full inclusion in their communities. In Galilee, Jesus fed the hungry by the thousands. In Galilee, Jesus confronted the powerful. It is no wonder that this is how people remember Jesus. Of course they remember the horrible death, but they can only remember it in the light of his life and they honor it by trying to live the same way. As do we.
If it’s not apparent, I have had death on my mind lately. My classes this semester are nuts-and-bolts ministry classes: Preaching and Word and Worship, which is a course on liturgy. Recently we have been learning the one thing all ministers eventually have to do: funerals. This is hard for me. In the face of death, I feel completely inadequate. There is nothing I can say that will make things better. In the best of circumstances the deceased has live a long, full life surrounded by loved ones, but that is not always the case. One of my classmates told a story of preaching at the funeral of an 8th grade girl that committed suicide. It’s common in such situations to talk about heaven, to give families hope that she will find peace in the hereafter. I’ll be honest and say that I find this inadequate. If there is a heaven, I don’t think that is much comfort for the parent of a 12-year-old girl who has taken her own life. What can anyone possibly say that makes that better?
Instead, I think Mark’s account of the resurrection calls us to something else. Like the Christian calendar, it loops back around so that we pass through death and into life, again and again. Jesus life was so meaningful, so compelling that Mark’s advice is to live it all again. During Lent, we talked about casting out the demons that wear us down and distract us from being the person God made us to be. Jesus did not have that problem. He knew who he was and he knew what he had to do even unto death. He loved the people of Galilee and he served them in his life and mission. He loved the people of Galilee and so he went to Jerusalem to confront the people who held power over them. He mocked them and challenged them and he was killed by them. For the poor of Galilee, for the poor of Jerusalem, and for the all the poor that suffered under the thumb of Roman occupation, he gave his life. If you want to know why he died, go back to Galilee.
In being the person that God has for us to be, life and death pass away. When you have something to live for, you do not fear death. And when you have something worth dying for, you can fully live. The new life is not merely an extension of the life that we have, but a turning inside out of the life we know. The resurrection is not some distant hope, but a present reality, a new life that conquers death and limitation and scarcity and fear. Who knows what drove that little girl to take her life? It could be mental illness or shame over body image or sexuality. It could have been abuse. It could have been almost anything. One thing seems certain: she could not have known the peace of God, the confidence in her own skin that comes with understanding oneself as God’s chosen. Not in that moment. This is not condemnation, but repentance. The only thing that redeems her death is noting God’s presence with the sufferer and hearing God’s call in the suffering. New life for her means our lives must be changed. We must cast out the demons that distract us from the precious lives in peril around us. New life for her means we must go back to Galilee.
In the rotting skin of the leper, Jesus saw the hand of God. The leper had probably been ostracized by everyone, shunned out of fear. More than fear, this culture thought that God caused such maladies because of sin. Jesus might have reacted with revulsion or fear. Instead, he chose to heal the leper. And, as a jab to those in power, those who exclude the leper from the Temple and presumably the presence of God, Jesus sent the leper to the priest to show what he had done. If you want to know what Jesus death was for, go back to Galilee.
As the first son, Jesus represented his family, carried their authority. A person’s place in the world was defined by his or her place in the hierarchy from slave to emperor. When his mother and his brothers and sisters came to him, concerned that he was upsetting the apple cart, he knew who is true family was. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” All those things our culture and society claim make us who we are, the status and power and security of familial relationships were nothing to Jesus in the face of God’s claim on his life. If you want to know what Jesus’ death meant, go back to Galilee.
The Roman Empire promised prosperity to everyone. According to Roman ideology, the emperor was the Savior of the World. But those who fished the Sea of Galilee barely fed themselves. This allowed Rome and their client rulers in Jerusalem to keep people in line, always on the edge of starvation. Five thousand people followed Jesus into the wilderness to hear him teach, but they had nothing to eat. He took what the disciples had, five loaves of bread and two fish, and he fed the multitude. Who’s the Savior now? If you want to know why Jesus died, go back to Galilee.
In the quest to find the meaning of our own lives, the purpose for which we are willing to live or die, we could do worse than reading about Jesus. Like participating in the liturgical year, the repetition of Scripture forms us. Sealing these stories in our minds, engraving them on our hearts, beats back the demonic voices that seek to pull us away from God. In scripture, we traverse life and death and are reborn to return to the hills of Galilee.
When, like the Apostle Paul, we prefer neither life nor death, we have the courage to be who God made us to be. In this new life beyond life and death, we stand with Jesus on the shores of Galilee. In Galilee, we can cast out the demons that haunt this world, that lie to us, telling us we are not good enough and the world is not abundant enough to have peace and justice. In Galilee, we can stand up to the principalities and powers of this world that divide people by race and class and gender and sexual orientation, that profit off of the sin of the world. In Galilee, we can feed the hungry and house the homeless. In Galilee, we can protect the vulnerable and fearful. In Galilee, we can hear the cry of a child who sees no hope in the life she has.
When our loved ones are gathered around our graves, will they see our spirit in the world we left behind? Will they see new life in the wake of our deaths? Will they be inspired to go back to Galilee, to live life as we have? Every day, we must, as Paul says in Philippians, be conformed to Christ’s death in order to know the power of the resurrection. We must never forget that death and life are inextricably bound. We live through the story of life and death, so that we can be free to hear the call of God. We rehearse the beginnings and endings so that they no longer have power over us, so that we can always begin again. We can find the meaning of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, as well as our own, in Galilee. We live through the pain of Good Friday so that, on Easter Sunday, we can see Jesus in Galilee. We can find new life in the hills of Galilee.