“Sing It Again!”
He is risen! He is risen indeed!
About fifteen years ago, I had the very distinct privilege of meeting a rather spectacular woman named Norma, while I was with my high school youth group in TN on a mission trip.
The evening we arrived in, the volunteers unrolled their sleeping bags on the floor of the local middle school gymnasium and we checked out the room with all of our work materials for the week…kind of settling in… and then we gathered in the cafeteria for our evening programming. As we gathered, I couldn’t help but notice in this sea of high school youth groupers and their chaperones, that there was this small unassuming women (well into her eighties) sitting off to the side a ways on a metal folding chair.
As the staff began to lead the group in song, this woman just lit up and sang along, she knew every word and every hand motions. She sang with this soul deep kind of joy, you could just see her glowing.
Then we got to this simple little song, Spirit of the Lord, from Isaiah 61:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me.
To preach good news to the poor, he has sent me to proclaim,
release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind.
To set at liberty those who are oppressed,
and proclaim the acceptable, year of the Lord!!
As we finish she yells out, “Again!”
So the guitar players look at each other and shrug and start over again, so we sing it through another time. Then she yells out, “Again! Faster!”
So we sing it through another time, a little faster. But again she yells out, “Faster!!!” and she starts clapping out this impossibly quick beat, and all the volunteers are just looking at her, like who is this demanding lady?
But we sing it again!
We sang that song, over and over again, faster and faster. I think we sang it through about 15 times. Everybody was looking a little annoyed around song 7-10… By the time we got done it was just a blur of run-on words and noise. But eventually Norma Dean just nodded contentedly, said “I think you figured it out.” and gave a thumbs-up. And that was it for the night.
Every evening of that mission trip when we got together to sing, Norma would do this. The volunteers would get through with Spirit of the Lord, and she would cry out “Again!” and “Faster!” and “More energy!” and “Sing it like you mean it!” until we finally got that contented nod and thumbs up.
Well, Norma’s spirit was with me this week as I wrestled with our Gospel passage. I kept hearing her in my ear call out, “Again! Sing it again! Like you mean it this time!” And it took me a long time to figure out why…
Did anyone else notice that Mark, the author of our Gospel passage today, seemed to really botch the ending of the Easter story? I certainly did! Mark’s account seems so distressingly incomplete. This is what I’ve been struggling with.
Many of us are so used to John’s account of Easter morning, where Jesus, alive again, reunites with Mary Magdalene and his disciples. And the story ends with Mary running through the streets shouting, “He’s alive! I’ve seen the Lord!” It’s a very satisfying ending to the Passion story.
Jesus is betrayed, tortured, put on trial and killed… but then he comes back! He reconciles with his friends and then they have a party!
But that didn’t happen in Mark’s Gospel, did it?
When the women went to the tomb on Easter morning, those who had faithfully loved and followed Christ, they were not meet by their beloved teacher and friend. They were meet by some young man in a white robe (Maybe an angel, Mark isn’t clear on that…) telling them that the man they are looking for, Jesus of Nazareth isn’t there at all but rather was raised and is now heading to Galilee. They missed their opportunity to celebrate…
But it’s the last verse of Mark’s Gospel that frustrated me, after the women are commissioned to go and tell the world that Jesus is back… it says, “Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” Which is an entirely unsatisfying ending!
In Mark’s account of the passion: Jesus is betrayed, tortured, put on trial and killed, resurrected but then… abandoned again? Really Mark?
That’s a terrible way to end a Gospel! Those who witness God’s miracle, were so afraid they kept their mouths shut?
So, we are left with a couple of options on how to look at this:
We can either accept the fact that Mark is a terrible storyteller. Maybe he got a bad hand cramp and decided to wrap things up early… Or, we can acknowledge that maybe Mark ended his Gospel like this for a reason, and we just have to figure out what reason that is.
Perhaps… Mark knew that no story about death and resurrection could possibly have a neat and tidy ending. Perhaps he knew that readers of his Gospel, if they were paying attention, ought to be more than a little uncomfortable at the idea of the radical Jesus coming back. Perhaps he knew that the Son of God, alive again, should strike a note of holy fear in our hearts, because that would mean that we lived in a changed world. Or perhaps he believed that this story wasn’t over yet… but it was actually just the beginning.
Now, The man in the white robe, who greeted the women at the tomb, told them that Jesus was long gone. That he went on ahead of them to Galilee (of all places) and that they could meet up with him there. Galilee was where Jesus’ ministry first began. (Mark’s gospel doesn’t contain the story of Christ’s birth, there is no trip to Bethlehem. No shepherds. No cattle a lowing.) …
So maybe Mark didn’t botch the ending of his gospel story after all. Maybe he intended his account of the life of Christ not to have and ending at all, but merely a great arrow that points you back to the beginning again.
As Norma said, “Sing it again! One more time! From the top!”
Mark, it would seem, is a circle…
At the beginning of Christ’s ministry, He announced in Mark 1: 14 that, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s Kingdom! Change you hearts and live, and trust this good news!” And so at the end of Mark’s Gospel Jesus announces the same thing, “Now is the time!” We’ve got work to do!
Jesus shows us in his life again and again what that means. It means reaching out a hand to the leper. It means feeding the hungry. It means doing what we can, all that we can, to bring about healing and reconciliation in this world. It means being bold in how we love our neighbors, and audacious on how we trust our God.
And ultimately, Christ shows us, that living the kingdom of God into existence, means a life of sacrifice and love.
And as Mark tells us, Christ is still teaching us, still showing us, still inviting us into God’s work.
Mark is just like Norma Dean, in that he keeps pulling us into the song of the gospel, wanting the message and invitation of our God to stick. As soon as we get to the end, he’s yelling at us, “From the top! Sing it again! Like you mean it!” in the hopes that we will one day figure it out.
Now Norma, was spectacular. She had been volunteering with this mission program for close to 30 years by the time I met her. When she and her husband experienced the loss of their teenage son, they decided together to honor his short life by committing all that remained of theirs to being servants of God.
Back when the ministry was young, and operating on donated materials. You would find Norma with a hammer in her hand for hours just pulling nails out of old board and straightening them so that they could be used to fix up someone’s house.
But I think her greatest ministry of all, was making sure she did what she could to make sure the words of that song stuck in the head of every youth volunteer that she came across. A message of being responsible for proclaiming God’s word, a message of never tolerating captivity or being held back, one of doing what you could to live out the kingdom of God. Mark had the same goal! He wanted his message to stick, so he invited us to encounter it all again and again and again!
“From the top! Sing it again! Like you mean it!”
Let us pray,
Lord God, help us to be Easter people. Your servants to bring about new beginnings. Lord thank you for your holy word. Those stories that make us weep with joy, they are so familiar and beloved. And those that challenge us with their message of Christian responsibility. Christ is risen! And because of that Lord, your story is just beginning. Help us to pick up the invitation, to embrace and live into the kingdom of God. In Christ’s name. Amen.