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April 16, 2006 (Easter Sunday)—“Match Point”
Intern Pastor Joshua Graber
Sisters and brothers, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
About the turn of the year, an intriguing and intense movie made its way into our movie theaters. Some might have classified it as a mystery, which it is, but it’s also a study in human behavior and relationships.
Match Point is a movie about unfaithfulness and murder, and from that standpoint, it’s not unlike some of the stories that we find in our Bible.
It takes its name from the game of tennis, and the opening scene shows a ball striking the top of the net. Those of us who have played this game know that it’s a matter of pure luck which side of the net the ball chooses to fall. Just when we think it’s going to fall on one side or another, we get fooled.
In fact, one of the characters—a tennis pro—says:
“The man who said, ‘I’d rather be lucky than good’ saw deeply into life. People are often afraid to realize how much of an impact luck plays. There are moments in a tennis match where the ball hits the top of the net, and for a slit second remains in mid-air. With a little luck, the ball goes over and you win. Or maybe it doesn’t and you lose.”
The movie itself is filled with such twists and turns. Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out and you know how it’s going to end, the crafty ball doesn’t fall where you think it’s going to fall.
“Oh! I get it!” you say. “You’re not going to use the word “luck,” but you’re going to tell us that this is what Easter is about. The ball isn’t going to land where we think it’s going to land.
Just when you think that Good Friday has the last word—just when you think that death and darkness will rule the day, ‘Ta-da!’ God comes through with a magnificent surprise. The ball falls on the other side of the net and we’re the victors.”
I suppose that might be a good synopsis, but let’s slow down a bit! I think the ball is going to be suspended there in mid-air just a little longer than our neat and tidy conclusions.
According to the Gospel of Mark, the first Easter didn’t get off to a rip-roaring start, but more like a sputter. There were no amazed and astounded women engaged in a foot race with news of the empty tomb.
No unbelievable proclamations were announced to the disciples that “he is risen!” and there were no reassuring appearances by the risen Christ himself.
What we have here is a youth dressed in a white robe who speaks two basic commands: “Don’t be alarmed,” and “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee.”
But, believe it or not, this Gospel concludes with the women failing to accomplish not one, but both of these instructions. Mark tells us “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
There you have it! Period! “They said nothing to nobody.” There’s fear and silence. There’s no joyful response—but only fear and only silence.
Is this anyway to end a Gospel? On the most important day of the church year and this is what Mark writes? We commissioned him to do this? We want our money back!
A New Testament professor tells the story of a student who became so fascinated by the Gospel of Mark that he decided to memorize it and recite it orally in a public performance. The student prepared himself for several years, making sure that he could deliver this gospel with perfection.
The first performance was held in a large church and the student rendered a moving performance, bringing the Gospel to life. However, when he delivered the last line, “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid,” the audience sat there in breathless anticipation, as if to say, “Yes. Go on, go on.”
The student, for all his preparation, was caught off guard with their response. Unsettled by the audience’s impatient gaze and unsure how to make a graceful exit, he shifted nervously from one foot to the other.
Finally, after several seconds of awkward silence, he brightened and said, “Amen!” The relieved audience burst into enthusiastic applause.
It’s possible that Mark could have ended this story differently than what he did, but not really. Mark isn’t going to say, “The End” or “They lived happily ever after” on the last page and let us off the hook.
He’s not going to let us experience the satisfaction of a play neatly resolved. It’s not going to be possible for us to fold our bulletins, head out to the Poki lot, get into our cars, and drive off to our same old lives.
Instead, Mark is going to leave us dangling and uncertain. He’s going to leave the tennis ball suspended in mid-air so that we have to ask ourselves—“Now what!”
This story does have an ending, but it’s not the kind of ending that falls neatly into place. “It’s an ending that can happen only for those who have given up the arrogance that this will end as all other stories do with the world we have grown accustomed to still intact.”
This Gospel does have an ending, but it’s God’s ending—not ours. And Mark is intent upon putting it back into our laps. What will we do with it? Will we dare to entrust our lives to this story and be courageous, compassionate, and vigilant in light of this story?
About two weeks ago on an early Monday morning, two folks from this congregation—Paul and Hanna Kath—were on their way to Germany to visit Hanna’s family. They were passengers in a C-5 military plane—described by some as a “giant oversized boxcar.”
The Dover Air Force Base in Delaware had never seen a major crash, but that was about to change. The morning rush hour hadn’t started yet when Flight #4059—loaded for a trans-ocean flight with a quarter billion pounds of jet fuel—fell from the early morning sky during a futile return to the runway.
Some described the minor injuries to the 17 aboard as nothing less than a miracle. One writer said that the pilot’s controlled crash landing was a wok of art that saved lives and property.
He also wrote, “On the chart of possibilities there probably isn’t an option with as many pockets of pure luck as this one. “A former potato farm [for the landing—talk about the luck of the Irish]? Off the highway? No explosion? No fire? No ground damage? All survive?”
Why did the ball fall where it did? Some would attribute it to luck. Others would say that it belongs to the providence and protection of God. But this preacher has no answer. I just don’t know! I don’t think it’s the most important question, however.
Aside from the tremendous gratitude for the safety of Paul and Hanna and for the others, I believe a, more important question would be, “Now what?” After being spared from the jaws of death, I wouldn’t think it would be possible to get into our cars and drive off to the same old lives.
But that’s true for all of us here this morning, for we, too, have been delivered from the jaws of death in all its many forms. So now what? What will we do? Will we just fold our bulletins and head home as if the world is still intact?
The risen Christ was not at the tomb. He told his friends and he tells us this morning to meet him in Galilee. There we will see him, and that’s where we will see him today.
We will see him in places of wretchedness and need—in places where forgiveness and compassion replace violence and revenge; in places where peace and justice replace war and inequality.
We will see the risen Christ in places where hope and joy take hold in the hearts of those who are filled with despair and sorrow, and in places where life in all of its abundance takes root in the soil of death and darkness.
In all these places, the risen Christ is beckoning us to follow and to be involved in a community of forgiveness, healing, compassion, and justice for ourselves but also for the sake of the world.
A folk singer of my era, Pete Seeger, gives a wonderful illustration of living this story. He once built a schooner called the Clearwater. He used to take people on Hudson River excursions in New York to enlist their support for cleaning up the river and its beaches.
Although it was a small endeavor, Seeger likened it to a seesaw with one end anchored to the ground by a basket of rocks, while activists were at the other end using teaspoons to slowly fill a basket with sand. Some day the balance will tip and the rocks will be sent flying into the air.
People will ask: “How did that happen so quickly?” And Seeger responds, “It happened because of us and our dammed little teaspoons.”
Jesus goes before us in all those places where we are called to live faithfully in a world where there is so much rubble, death, and destruction.
With the continued mayhem in Iraq, the rumblings of confrontation against Iran, and the domestic dysfunction that continues to unfold before us daily, the reality of the grave is all around us. And all of our efforts might seem to amount to a bunch of little teaspoons against a bucket of rocks.
Hopes for peace and goodwill among the peoples of the earth often get dashed to pieces, as well as the hope that love is stronger than hate and life more powerful than death.
The risen Christ, however, goes before us in all these places. Just when we think that the world will continue on with its old and catastrophic ways, God breaks forth with the Easter promise and an Easter ending on the tattered edge of all our failings.
This is God’s ending, and on this Easter day we are invited, encouraged, and called to participate in what God is doing among us.
Copyright © 2006 Joshua Graber
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org