Easter Day, 1 April 2018

April 1, 2018 | by Nathan Mattox

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Isaiah 25:6-9 Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 Acts 10:34-43 Mark 16:1-8

Unfinished Symphony

I am working on the assumption that on Easter Sunday, most of us will be preaching primarily from the Gospel Text, and oh, what a text to proclaim. Mark 16:1-8 is well suited to a process perspective, as it expresses the central tenant of Process Theology: the future is open. Here, in what most scholars, and even the text in most Bibles spells out what might be a vexing point to some of our hearers — this is the oldest, or most authoritative end to the Gospel of Mark, and some other documents add on what follows to conclude the 16th chapter and the Gospel of Mark which seems to conveniently harmonize this telling with Matthew and Luke. We process preachers couldn’t ask for a better ending to a gospel than Mark gives us: a hurried, practically mid-sentence break in the narrative that leaves the whole story seemingly abruptly open ended.

Many scholars have given beautiful treatment to this passage. The most satisfying  idea to many of us is that the gospel writer intentionally disconcerted the readers with the notion that the women “went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” This narrative device puts the ball in the court of the readers/hearers. “Since they were afraid and silent, I won’t be!” There is room here for the Process Preacher to expound on the concept that what Mark is doing with the text is what God is doing in each moment. The Divine Aim points toward a Hoped for future for the hearer of the Gospel. As John Cobb and David Ray Griffin point out in Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition, our theological concept posits God’s Creative Love as Adventurous. “Each divine creative impulse into the world is adventurous, in that God does not know what the result will be.” (57) The original Easter story from our oldest gospel invites this adventurous sense of unknown into the climax of the story. It is a “cliffhanger ending.” It makes us feel uneasy, especially in the original Greek, which feels so disjointed and halting that traditions arose among the early manuscript writers that Mark had been forced to flee from his task of finishing the Gospel (which is why they undertook finishing it for him). While it may have been unsatisfying to some of the early Christians, it is the best resurrection story to give expression to the process interpretation. “Process Theology understands God precisely as the basic source of unrest in the universe.” (Cobb and Griffin, 59)  Though fear may stifle the life changing good news of the Gospel in the story, it is in our hands as well, and we may choose to respond with trust and faith instead of fear.

Psalm “Has become my salvation.”

Though the Psalter has some definite coercive God aspects “God has punished me severely” that might might be troublesome to us and our congregations, there is a phrase that keeps repeating that might give the Process preacher an alternative focus. “Has become my salvation” lends itself well to the process preacher speaking of concrescence. Salvation becoming more and more concrete in a person’s life leads to greater enjoyment and less static triviality. “This is the Lord’s doing, it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it,” is a familiar refrain that many of our guests will resonate with, and also give the Process preacher an angle to speak of God’s fundamental aim as enjoyment. (See index in Cobb and Griffin, 188)

The passage from Isaiah is the only non-Psalm Hebrew Bible scripture the lectionary selects for us during the Easter season, and it is a beautiful one, especially for a day when most of us will be celebrating the Eucharist, since it relates the “feast” our Great Thanksgiving points toward at it’s conclusion “and we feast at his heavenly banquet forever.” As most of us are seeing the largest crowd of the year on Easter with a fair number of guests, we should include a substantial reading such as this Isaiah passage to reflect the “usual pattern” of worship including a reading from the Old Testament as well as the new. For those of us who only hear from 2 scriptures and a Psalm, I would privilege this reading over the epistle to communicate that to this “broader audience” of a congregation.

The text paints the portrait of a lure toward God’s hoped for future. Isaiah regards this as an apocalyptic event set around a banquet table, when like a magician jerking a tablecloth off the table without any plate or champagne glasses spilling, God takes the “shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations, and will swallow up death forever.” (NIV)  This is a compelling image, perhaps better paired with the alternate gospel passage from John and the talk of “folded up burial cloths” in the tomb. In any case, the “shroud and sheet” which “enfolds and covers” ALL people would be a good counterpart to what we typically proclaim in the “essential relatedness” (Cobb and Griffin 18-21) that binds the human race together in an interdependent web of being as well as the freedom that is essential to the process interpretation of eschatology. “The vision that is needed is of new communities that are not experienced as restrictive of freedom. They must be voluntary communities, but that is not enough…. The voluntary community must be bound by different kinds of ties, ties that are experienced as fulfillment rather than limitation.” (Cobb and Griffin, 113)

As the Eastertide season embarks on a whirlwind tour of Acts as an alternative to the Old Testament reading, it might serve the congregation which hears 3 scripture passages along with the Psalter to take a step into that water.

The narrative here shows a newly enlightened Peter, who has opened his eyes to the reality of God’s activity among the Gentiles. Though the text is likely chosen because Peter here gives what some might regard as an “Easter sermon,” proclaiming the mystery of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and the meaning of that event for the world, how he prefaces the sermon might be of value to the Process preacher as well. “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” This “opening up” of the good news was a lure toward what the hymn would later say, “there’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea; there’s a kindness in his justice, which is more than liberty.” (There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy, United Methodist Hymnal, 121).

As an aside, I have always enjoyed this hymn, but as I was making sure I had the lyrics right, I stumbled across the full lyrics of that hymn.  Some of which might be of interest to the Process Preacher for this or later sermons:

. . . There is no place where earth’s sorrows
Are more felt than up in Heaven;
There is no place where earth’s failings
Have such kindly judgment given.

. . . There is grace enough for thousands
Of new worlds as great as this;
There is room for fresh creations
In that upper home of bliss.

. . . It is God: His love looks mighty,
But is mightier than it seems;
’Tis our Father: and His fondness
Goes far out beyond our dreams.

. . . But we make His love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness
With a zeal He will not own.

(Frederick W. Faber, Oratory Hymns, 1854)

Rev. M. Nathan Mattox graduated with an MDiv from Claremont School of Theology in 2005, and has since served United Methodist congregations in Arkansas and Oklahoma, most recently University United Methodist Church in Tulsa since 2011. A fellow of the Fund for Theological Education, National Council of Churches Ecological Justice Young Adult fellowship, Collegeville Writer’s Workshop, and the Hendix Institute for Clergy Civic Engagement, he also started the University Church Network, a collaborative resource for churches on or adjacent to university campuses. Nathan has been blending a family since July of 2017 with his wife Myranda, and enjoys the company of four chidren, a dog and a cat.