But where do we find the Kingdom of Heaven? Is the Kingdom of Heaven behind us, or ahead of us? I think all belief systems – religious, political, social – essentially boil down to this one question.
You may be asking yourself: “Self, why are we reading an Easter Gospel at closing worship?”
Because today is not the day our community of faith dies. Today is the day of its resurrection. Today is the day that “Jesus himself is sent out through us, from east to west, the sacred imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.”
Today is the day that we return boldly in to the Valley of the World – to Richmond, to Alexandria, to Leesburg, to North Carolina, to Pittsburg, to Spain – to live resurrected lives, to spread the Gospel of Compassion, to love our neighbors as ourselves.
But even as I say that, I find it a hard to believe. When you all leave here today, I will feel an emptiness in my heart, an emptiness like Christ’s empty tomb. I will miss you all greatly, and it will take me some time to mourn that loss.
This community has been kinder, more caring, more compassionate than any I have seen before. And I include in that the seven years I spent at St. George’s as a camper and a counselor.
My experience here has profoundly changed me. You have changed and transformed my beliefs. You give me hope.
Why can’t we just stay here, forever? Why do we have to go?
Yeah I know we have other things to do. High school. College. Work. Blah, blah, blah. But none of that seems as important to me as what we experienced here: A place where we danced, laughed, played, hiked, sang, swam, slept—all in the sight of a loving, joyful God, surrounded by a community that loves us as God loves us, flaws and all.
Why do we have to go?
Today’s Gospel is with us in that feeling.
The Gospel of Mark is the earliest account of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. There are two endings to the Gospel of Mark, both added in later centuries, a short one (which we read today):
“And afterward Jesus himself sent out through [the disciples] from east to west, the sacred imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.”
And a longer one, which contains themes from the other three Gospels – Matthew, Luke, and John – so scholars believe it was tacked on as a way to give closure to the startling, abrupt ending of the Gospel of Mark.
Because the earliest version of the Gospel of Mark ends like this: “‘But go, tell the disciples 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.”
I understand why later versions of the Gospel of Mark tacked on more satisfying endings. Ending with "they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” is just too jarring.
It’s like if after the game of walkie-talkie tag, after the dance was finally announced that we all just woke up at home in our beds three days later, with no memory of the final 48 hours of camp. There’s no closure.
It’s like an incomplete sentence or a …
When something we love is coming to an end, we act differently. We want to say all the things left unsaid, and do all the things left undone. We muster up the courage to tell someone we love them. We make amends to broken relationships. We cry more, laugh harder, sing louder.
Sometimes when things we love are coming to an end, we’re afraid. And our fear makes us say things we don’t mean or do things we wish we hadn’t.
Today’s Gospel meets us in that place: “They said nothing. They were afraid.”
I am afraid. I am afraid to return to a community, to a city, to a world that, too often, is nothing like this. I am afraid to return to a place where people don’t know my name, or care to know it. I’m afraid to return to a place where telling a friend, “I love you, and here’s a really specific reason why I love you,” might make him look at me like I have blood on my face. I am afraid to return to a place where my vulnerability isn’t a sign of strength, but a sign of weakness. I am afraid to return to a place that is not as inclusive, understanding, loving. I’m afraid to return to a place where people judge me for the under-boob sweat I constantly have going.
I am afraid, but, if I'm willing to seek it out, resurrection is promised to me – to us, to you – out in the Valley of the World.
We can choose to go about things as “business as usual” – slip back in to the rhythm of our lives like nothing happened here – or we can seek out Jesus, who has gone on ahead of us.
We can believe that there will never be a community like St. George’s and let our memory of this place be a memory of a paradise lost, or we can choose to see ourselves as disciples, sent out to love the world as God loves us.
Maybe it’s wishful thinking that the Valley of the World can be like this place. But it’s the better story. We have to believe in the better story. It’s the only way we’ll ever write it in to existence.
After all, we can’t be content to escape to St. George’s for a few weeks a year. Because the whole world deserves the love we experienced here.
We can never be truly compassionate, as God is compassionate, if we leave behind us the version of ourselves that we found here on the mountain and let things go on as they had before we arrived. In fact, I don’t think we could if we wanted to.
In a way, St. George’s is something like a Baptism, where we’re anointed with Holy Water and marked as “Christ’s own forever.” The holy water of the pool, of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River, of the water the counselors sprinkle on your face on your birthday. The water from our Nalgenes.
I have been marked, baptized by you all, and the question now is how do I show that forth in my life?
I don’t know. But I believe if I seek Jesus – the Jesus who has gone on ahead of us in to the Valley of the World – I think we get closer.
Every time we come together in prayer and thanksgiving. Every time we choose to speak up to injustices, big and small. Every time we choose compassion, no matter what the world shows us. Every time we look in to someone’s eyes and see their pain and joy—every time we see God in those eyes. Every time we choose to love ourselves as God loves us. Every time we do these things, we bring the Kingdom of Heaven one step closer.
Is the Kingdom of Heaven behind us, or ahead of us?
As we leave this place, the lesser part of me wants to believe that it will soon be behind us. But if I believe the Kingdom of Heaven is behind us – that no greater love or adventure awaits me back in the Valley – I will spend my life trying, and failing to recreate what happened here. That’s not possible, because what happened here was at a specific point in time, at a specific point in our lives, with a specific group of people.
I can choose to believe that the Kingdom of Heaven is ahead of us, but if I press blindly on, putting this place in my rearview mirror, I will lose sight of what about this place I wanted to carry with me on the journey.
So I have to believe that the Kingdom is both behind us and ahead of us.
When we come to the Eucharistic Feast, at the breaking of the bread, we’ll hear Laura speak Jesus’ words: “Do this, in remembrance of me.” What gets lost in translation is that Jesus wasn’t saying, “Eat this bread to remember me by.” He was saying, “Do this to make me present again.”
The Eucharist is supposed to give us a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus showed us 2000 years ago, and compel us to seek the Kingdom of Heaven in our world—to seek He who is resurrected, He who has gone on ahead of us. To see that Heaven is both behind us, and ahead of us.
We have no choice but to press forward, but we can make the love we found here present elsewhere.
We will all need to seek ways to make our little Kingdom of Heaven on Yellow Spring Mountain present again in our lives. We can’t just let them be fond memories. If we let our experience here become just memories, then today a community dies.
But I don’t believe that can happen. I’ve seen too much love in you all to believe that this is the end. God loves us too much to let this be the end.
The Church needs you. The world needs you. Wherever you go next, it’s time now for you to lead—to be disciples of the Gospel of Compassion.
It might seem baffling that Mark’s Gospel would end with “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” But it’s ridiculous to say that the Gospel has an ending at all. It just has a place where it leaves off for us to pick up.
We find ourselves in such a place now. We leave the comfort of the story we know and enter in to a story that we have to write in to existence. We go on to tell the story of this place.
We might be afraid. We will mourn leaving this community, but we go on to seek Jesus—to spread love and compassion, to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven.
Today we give thanks for the life of this community, and we dance to the tune of its resurrection.
[The congregation then sang "The Lord of the Dance."]
Photo credit: Ashley Cameron