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Stuck Lid, Open Tomb
(Audio Link Below the text)
Easter Sunday - April 1, 2018
The Rev. Dr. Ted Cole, Jr.

What is your theory of how change happens?  Do you think change happens slowly, over time, like the way the shoreline shifts after years of tides ebbing and flowing over it?  Does change happen in leaps and jumps, like the growth spurts of living things that move from one stage of life to the next, a tadpole to a frog, a baby to a toddler?  I heard a theory of change the other day that had never occurred to me before - the stuck lid theory of change. Have you heard of this?

If you haven’t, I am certain you know the experience.  You have a jar of something you want to open, and no matter how hard you try, THE-LID-WILL-NOT-COME-OFF!  What are the things we do when we cannot get a lid off a jar? We take a towel and wrap it around the lid to get a better grip.  We hand it off to another person so they can try. We run the lid under hot water if it is metal to get the metal to expand and relieve the tightness around the lip of the jar.  We bang the lid against a hard surface to loosen it in places (but be careful! You don’t want to break the jar!). Whatever we do, we come back to grabbing the jar and the lid, and TWISTING-TWISTING-TWISTING-IT’S-NEVER-GOING-TO-OPEN-WHY-DOES-GOD-HATE-ME-I-AM-GOING-STARVE- and then suddenly -POP!- off it comes!  The stuck lid theory of change says that it seems like nothing is ever going to be different until suddenly, it is. This is a wonderfully evocative way to describe the change of Easter Sunday - it seems like nothing is ever going to change, and then suddenly, everything is different!

If we want to appreciate fully and deeply the power of this morning we need help, we need to connect with the experience our ancestors in the faith first hearing about Easter morning.  Our gospel writer, Mark, gives us a very dramatic way to do that. We do not know for a fact, but scholars speculate that Mark’s Gospel, Mark’s telling of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, began as an oral telling.   That is, it was a story that was shared with others from memory mouth to ear, not written down to be read from hand to eye.

So imagine with me we are turning our ears to the sacred storyteller mouth as they share with us of the story of Jesus.  We are hearing for the first time of Jesus humbly being baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist and receiving the anointing of the Holy Spirit.  We hear how Jesus goes into the wilderness to pray and fast and discern what his ministry is as the Anointed One, as the Christ, the Messiah. He comes back from the wilderness and he teaches and heals and liberates.  He calls followers to him and empowers them to carry on his ministry. We feeds the hungry and brings those outcast and ashamed from sin into his movement of God’s realm, God’s ways (in traditional language, God’s Kingdom).

We hear the story told and we are moved by how this young prophet is making manifest the hope and longing of God’s people for justice and love and reconciliation.  We hear with confusion as Jesus tells his closest followers that he is going to die in Jerusalem and rise to new life. We share with Peter his indignation at the very idea and we feel the sting as Jesus rebukes Peter and calls on all of us to take up our cross if we would follow him.  

We hear the story and journey with Jesus to Jerusalem. We too receive him with joy and shouts of Hosanna, like those waving palms on that day.  We feel the excitement of the city and wonder what will happen. We cheer as Jesus confronts and silences the religious leaders who fear him and his movement.  We wonder if this Jesus is the one to bring the change that God’s people have longed for since the days of Isaiah, the one through whom “...God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of the people God will take away from all the earth…”

We hear the story, and it suddenly, tragically becomes like so many of the painful real world stories we know all too well.  Betrayal, arrest, cowardice, violence, the powerful assaulting the powerless, oppression stamping down freedom and liberation.  Jesus is tried, handed over to the Romans and crucified. He cries out in agony on the cross and dies. The excitement and hope we felt hearing of his ministry is now dashed.  Maybe we feel sadness and loss. Maybe we are simply stunned, in shock as it were. Maybe we feel shame that we dared to hope in the first place when we should know better.

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint Jesus. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

The storyteller stops and stands there silently, looking at us one by one.  A few voices halting break the silence, “Wait, what?” “They told no one?” “I don’t understand.”  The storyteller looks at us, one by one. And then says, “The story was mine. Now it is yours. What are you going to do with it?”

Mark presents the Gospel to us as a drama, a drama in which we all have a part, in which you have a part.  All the hope and excitement we feel at Easter morning is not meant to be a pleasant comforting fantasy, a rewriting of the tragedy of our lives as if they never happened.  The power and hope of Easter morning, the power and hope of the Resurrection is to face tragedy, oppression, violence and evil with love and reconciliation and goodness, and to manifest the truth - that God’s ways give more life than the ways of the world, that love is greater than death, that violence is not the final word, that hope is eternal.

In our world today, we hear a steady stream of news that is of violence and oppression, of corruption and exploitation.  Generations before us have been struggling to change things for the better, often times fruitlessly and with no visible sign of change.  And then it happens. Change comes, the stuck jar lid opens, and the world is a more just and compassionate place. From Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall, we know places and stories and people in our world where it seemed like injustice would never end, when it seemed like the jar would never open, and then it did.  We are in the midst of such a “stuck-jar-lid” transformation right now, led by the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. These young people are manifesting a powerful kind of Resurrection in response to the Crucifixion they collectively experienced on February 14, 2018. For many of us, seeing these young people take action is a sign of hope, an affirmation that change is still possible, that justice and peace and love are still coming.

But here’s the thing, my friends - hearing and seeing the story unfold is not enough; we need to become part of the story.  

If we would truly see justice, peace and love flourish in our world, if we would truly be people of the Resurrection, if we would truly be followers of Jesus the Christ, then it is not enough to hear the story told to us.  We need to enter into the story, to become a living part of it and to share it others. We need to accept the blessing of hearing and the burden of enacting and retelling the story of the Cross and the Empty Tomb. We retell and re-enact this story of Good Friday Crucifixion and Easter Sunday Resurrection because the work of striving for justice, peace, love and reconciliation is never ending.  Progress is generational, conditional, always in need of renewal. You are here this morning not simply to be cheered by the good news of Resurrection, but to become a part of it. Will you play your part in this never-ending, unfolding drama of God’s salvation manifesting the power to bring new life from death and to make all things new?

The storyteller stands there, silently, looking at each of us one by one and says “The story was mine.  Now it is yours. What will you do with it?”




Fake News and Real Values
(Audio Link Below Text)
Christmas Eve, 2017
The Rev. Dr. Ted Cole, Jr.

Growing up in New York City, Christmas time was always special. There is a reason so many Christmas movies and television shows are set in New York.  When I see one, I feel very privileged that Christmas in New York is part of my childhood memories. I look forward to taking my two boys to New York during this season and sharing it with them when they are older.  But I have the means to share one of my strongest memories with them now, thanks to the wonders of On Demand cable television: the video Yule Log.

When I was growing up, in New York on Christmas Eve every year, WPIX Channel 11 broadcast for two full hours without commercial interruption the image of a fireplace burning brightly while played the music of the season, both secular and sacred.  When I was with my Mom on Christmas Eve, we were a “decorate your Christmas tree on Christmas eve” family.  We brought out and tested the strings of lights (with the large colorful bulbs, as Christmas lights should be), unpacked the ornaments and decorated the tree.  As we practiced this family tradition, the light of the Yule Log from the television screen glowed and Christmas music filled the room.  And once in a few years, we might have some hot chocolate to go along with it all.

It’s funny as I think back on it now how so much warmth could be generated by such a fake fire.   Yes, a fake fire.

Now New York City is a crowded overpopulated little island (yes, I was born in Manhattan so Manhattan is ‘the City’ and the rest is the Boroughs) with apartments piled one on top of another in buildings that reach to the sky. This is not a situation where every home can have a fireplace. So that fake Yule Log on WPIX on Christmas Eve was meeting a real need in our hearts and imaginations even though no logs were actually in our home, no fire was being tended, no smell of burning wood filled our living room. It makes me wonder about the power of things fake and things real.

For better and for worse, we live in a time when the question of the power of what is real and what is fake is being called.

The use of the pejorative “fake news” by those in power in our country is a break with the norms of our civic discourse.  To find our way in the midst of the uncertainty this break in norms generates, we need to ask what is real news and what is fake news.  Those in power seem to think that the fact that they say something makes it real news, makes it true and relevant and that when they label something as fake news, that makes it untrue and irrelevant.  But friends, saying something does not make it real and labeling something else fake does not make it untrue for us mere mortals, even if we are invested with the power of the presidency.  To know when things are fake and things are real requires investigation, study, understanding.  In the Christmas story, we have a fruitful example of this.

Here is the news of this Christmas night - Mary and Joseph make their way to Bethlehem because the government is taking a census for the purposes of imposing a tax.  Mary is close to birthing Jesus, so the trip is very difficult.  They come to the town, and because so many others are there for the census, they find no room at the inn.  The only place they can find is a stable, and Jesus is born there among the animals.  Now what I am about to say I said last year, but still I do not want to shock anyone, so here goes - a significant part of this version of the Christmas story is actually fake news.

In this fake news version of the story, Mary and Joseph come to Bethlehem, a town where Joseph has distant relatives, but not one of them takes them in and they cannot purchase from an inn a place of rest where Mary can deliver Jesus into the world. All the inns are sold out, and no one is so moved by their plight to offer their place up to them.  The help they receive is the minimal kind - “here, take this unwanted space not good enough for regular people and make due with it.”  In this fake news version of the story, there is no kindness, no generosity, no gratitude at the coming of the Christ child into the world.

This fake news version of the story arose in the west because of a mistranslation of a word.  We can see this with a little investigation.  In New Testament Greek, when Mary and Joseph come to Bethlehem there is no room in the “kataluma” which is better rendered in English as “guestroom” or “upper room.”  This word turns up in the Last Supper narrative, where Jesus and the disciples celebrate the Passover on that fateful night before the Crucifixion in the “kataluma,” the “upper room.”  

When Luke relates Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan, he writes of a public inn where the kind and generous Samaritan leaves the beaten man in the care of the innkeeper (found in Luke 10).  This inn in Greek is a “pandocheion,” not a “kataluma.”  So back there in Bethlehem in Luke 2, it is not a “pandocheion,” a public inn that Mary and Joseph are excluded from but the guestroom or “prophet’s room” that was a part of a typical home in first century Palestine.

Further, homes in first century Palestine typically consisted of three tiers - the guestroom or prophet’s room up top, the family’s main living area in the middle, and on a lower level, the place where animals would be brought in for the night.  This lower level included a feedbox or manger built into the structure.  So when Mary swaddles Jesus and lays him in the manger, she does so in the hospitality of a crowded home, not cast out in the unwanted space of a public inn’s stable.  Family was around Mary, Joseph and Jesus, comforting them, supporting them, celebrating with them, practicing the ancient and holy art of kindness, generosity and gratitude.  That is the real news of Christmas.

Friends, the things that are real are the things that abide, the values that have been the hallmark of God’s love for us across the centuries, values that mark our faithful response to God’s love - kindness, generosity and gratitude.  When we practice kindness, generosity and gratitude, we rejoice in the truth; we do not go around declaring the things we do not like or the things we disagree with as fake.  When we practice kindness, generosity and gratitude, we have a humility about ourselves that is gracious and welcoming.  When we practice kindness, generosity and gratitude, we are eternally beside Jesus in that manger with Mary and Joseph in the home that welcomed them, and we are blessed by the light of Christ that breaks into our hearts and lives and sets us alight with the love of God.

On Christmas morning, as Sage and I and our boys Theo and Zach  wake up and share the joy of the day in our home, I will put on our television an On-Demand Yule Log with some Christmas music to fill our living room.  I suspect my boys will not pay it much mind, but if they ask (well, if Zachary asks, it will be Christmas miracle because he is only one year old!) I will tell them about my growing up in New York City and what this video Yule Log means to me.  Even though it will be fake fire, it will feel very good to share this tradition anew with my children as my Mom shared it with me.  But the warmth and light Sage and I will most be tending is the love that God has for us in Christ, a love that has the power to bring warmth and light into our souls, our homes, our communities and our world.  With Sage, I will strive to tend kindness, generosity and gratitude in Zach and Theo’s hearts and souls, as well as in our own.  That holy warmth and light is not fake in any way at all.  It is the most real thing there is.  May you find and tend the warmth and light of Christ in your heart and your home and your life all year round.  And Merry Christmas!