My kids and I visited my father in Ohio earlier this week. Dad spends a lot of time watching old movies, which is how it happened that we ended up watching the last two-thirds of the 1941 classic, “One Foot in Heaven.” The movie, starring Fredric March, is about an earnest Methodist minister and his family, who heroically endure leaky parsonage after leaky parsonage as they move from call to call. It’s a great film. Go home and rent it (not now – after church!).
I won’t spoil the plot, but I do have to share with you today the final scene, which was truly epic. Our hero the minister is playing the new carillon in the new church he convinced the people to build. He sits in a beam of sunlight. He’s prayerfully and slowly playing “The Church’s One Foundation.”
As he plays, the people of the town start to take notice. The beautiful tones of the hymn waft into their workplaces and homes, and they respond. The bakers put down their rolling pins, wipe the flour from their hands and walk out into the street. The bankers leave their ledgers behind.
Teachers put down their chalk and lead their children out the door of the school and onto the sidewalk. Factory workers step away from their toil and join their managers, arm in arm, walking toward the sound of the carillon. They are all gazing upward, walking – now the whole town is walking toward the church, and singing – they are singing, “The Church’s One Foundation” in four-part harmony. Tears are flowing, as they are overcome with joy and faith and fellowship.
This is not how most of Watertown reacted this morning when the church bells rang. Many people heard the bells and turned the page in the Style section of the New York Times. Others poured a second cup of coffee and sat down to watch another episode of Fixer Upper. Some people turned the corner on their morning run and checked their pedometers. All over Watertown, at the sound of the church bells, people reached into their Easter baskets and selected another peep to eat (and then they regretted it). Many people didn’t hear the church bells because they had earbuds in their ears.
We do not live on the set of a 1941 Warner Brothers movie. We live in a time and place where faith is suspect and hope is hard. Some have stopped listening for the still small voice of God, let alone church bells or a carillon. Instead we listen for sirens and fire alarms and community alerts. People stay in, stay home, stay safe.
And yet….and yet, here you are. You have arisen from your slumber, washed, dressed, parked (no mean feat on this street) and despite all the cultural norms, despite the heartbreaking headlines, despite your aching hip and your aching heart, despite the unpaid bills and the unrequited loves and the unanswered questions about the meaning of it all, you have come here today. You are here on this Easter morning. Something is going on in you.
In the church, we call that something the Holy Spirit. The Spirit stirs us up, dislodges us out of our complacency, and makes us curious. The Spirit nudges us into community and towards the hope of hoping again, even while we are still afraid.
You are here on this Easter Day. You are exactly what the writer of the Gospel of Mark had in mind when he ended his gospel as he did.
Our gospel today is the ending of Mark, and in it, the women come to Jesus’s tomb and find it empty. A mysterious figure dressed in white tells them that Jesus has risen and gone ahead to Galilee. How did they react? Listen again: “They fled from the tomb in terror and amazement. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
That’s not exactly a Hollywood ending, is it? No bell-ringing, no Allelulia’s, not even some peeps to celebrate with. Terror and Fear.
Why? Some scholars assumed this was a mistake – this hanging chad of an ending can’t be what Mark intended. The final verse, verse 18, is just too dark. There must be a missing fragment somewhere. Where is verse 19? But no. Mark knew what he was doing.
Here’s the thing: You are the missing fragment. You are verse 19. The women in the story could not believe the good news of the Resurrection. They lived in a world of terror and fear. They were used to having their hopes dashed. They were used to coming up short, used to narrow horizons. They were used to being cast as extras on the movie set of life. So are we.
God invites us to go ahead to Galilee anyway. God knows we hold fear. God gets that. Go ahead anyway. Fear in one hand, hope in the other, keep walking till you catch up with Jesus in Galilee.
Why Galilee? That’s where Jesus did the work of love: healed people, crossed boundaries, recruited people to justice. Mark left the gospel right where it is on purpose. The women fled in fear. What about you, dear reader? What about you, people of Watertown in 2018? What about you, church about to face into a transition? What about you, citizens of a global community wracked by violence and inhumanity. Will you follow the risen Jesus to Galilee?
Last night when I went to bed, I thought I had finished my Easter sermon. But this morning when I woke up, I decided to take a minute to find out how Holy Week was going for my clergy colleagues. So I checked facebook. And there I came upon a photo posted by a seminary friend who has served as the vicar of a church in Long Island. He is a Caribbean-American man. It was a beautiful photo showing the moon over his church. He took the photo after the Easter Vigil last night. Just as I was about to scroll on to the next posting, I noticed what he had written under the photo. Here’s what I wrote:
As I walked out to my car tonight, I noticed how beautiful the Easter moon looked over [the church]. I thought to myself, wow what a great picture. I walked across the street and squatted to get the right angle to take the picture. As I did, I saw the lights of a car coming at me, so I stood up. It was a police car. I was a black man with a cell phone in my hand, standing across the street from a church with my name on the building. They asked what I was doing, and I explained that I was trying to take a picture of my church. I should not have been afraid, but I was. Stephon Clark immediately came to my mind. Many people won’t understand or will feel this is irrational, but people of color are legitimately afraid for our lives. As we celebrate Easter and the hope of the Resurrection, I ask you, my sisters and brothers, how can we bring new life into the world and change the story of fear and distress so many of us have into a story of hope?
Our call is not to walk down Mt. Auburn Street singing “The Church’s One Foundation,” but rather to walk from this church living as the hands, heart, mind, and feet of Christ, working for the reconciliation of all and the justice that is beloved community.
In recent weeks, we have had such beautiful models of people claiming their vocation to be verse 19 in this chapter. We have had the uprising of a generation of high school students refusing to let death-dealing corporate interests a and governmental indifference hold hostage their futures.
We have had millions of adults stand with them in their call for a reform of gun legislation.
They have been an early sign of Easter to us, speaking truth to power.
Today we have another model of someone claiming their vocation to be verse 19 in Betsy Byers,
who is saying yes to the invitation to go ahead to Galilee by being baptized into the Body of Christ.
She will set her heart on the promise of Resurrection life, pledging to model her life on that of Christ’s. Her life as a Christian will not mean leading a parade of people to Watertown Square singing “The Church’s One Foundation,” but rather day by day, relationship by relationship, decision by decision, moving forward aware of God’s grace and presence, even in the face of fears and uncertainties. When she loses that awareness, as happens in life, you will be alongside her to remind her, to hold her fears, and to say, “I think I see Christ ahead of us. Come on a walk with me, and let’s see if we can find him together.” And the Spirit will be at work in her. That’s what it really looks like to have one foot in heaven.