“The Type of Man You’d Want to Keep Alive”
Sermon and Worship Service for
The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of
Columbia, South Carolina
April 16, 2017
The Rev. Jennie Ann Barrington, Interim Minister
Call to Worship [“Easter is…” by Richelle E. Goodrich]
Joining in a birdsong,
Eying an early sunrise,
Smelling yellow daffodils,
Unbolting windows and doors,
Skipping through meadows,
Reviving spent life,
Inhaling fresh air,
Sprinkling seeds along furrows,
Tracking in the mud.
Easter is the soul’s first taste of spring.”
Singing the Children Out
Musical Call to Worship “Hallelujah,” by MaMuse [Anna Hamilton and Elizabeth Harris]
*Opening Hymn #61 Lo, the Earth Awakes Again
Candles of Community
Offering [Congaree Riverkeeper] Offertory: “Saints and Sinners,” by David Francey
Morning Reading, from The Lewiston Tribune, [Author Unknown]:
“Easter is not a time for groping through dusty, musty tomes or tombs to disprove spontaneous generation or even to prove life eternal. It is a day to fan the ashes of dead hope, a day to banish doubts and seek the slopes where the sun is rising, to revel in the faith which transports us out of ourselves and the dead past into the vast and inviting unknown.”
Responsive hymn: #123 “Spirit of Life”
The Morning Sermon: “The Type of Man You’d Want to Keep Alive”
Why have countless people felt moved to re-tell the Easter Story for so many years? It’s a story that has many different versions, and interpretations, and endings. Some of the Easter Story informs what we know to be real and true. Some of the Easter Story inspires our faith in the intangible graces– nobility, sacrifice, and unconditional love. Easter week can be a challenge for Unitarian Universalists. Our tendency is to focus on that which is provable by empirical evidence, this-worldly, reasonable, and therefore less likely to render us disillusioned. Yet, in our pluralism, we are committed to honor the best of the world’s religions and philosophies. And so on this Easter morning, we will not avoid looking at Jesus. This Easter morning is our opportunity to consider why the story of Jesus’ life and death has been kept alive even until this day.
So in a few minutes I’ll offer for our consideration some of the variant endings of the Easter Story, specifically from the Gospel According to Mark, so we can explore which one was likely written by Mark, and which ones were likely created later by scribes, from oral history, or as a statement of their personal faith. But first I want to tell you a different story. It is a work of fiction; it’s a contemporary screenplay by Zach Helm called, “Stranger Than Fiction.” I want to tell you this story because there’s a part at the end of the movie that is my answer to why people have continued to re-tell the Easter Story, even into contemporary times. That part of the movie was my initial inspiration for this sermon and worship service. The movie is also uniquely endearing and bizarre, and raises many philosophical questions.
The hero, Harold Crick [played by Will Ferrell] is an IRS agent who, with few close relationships or passions or even hobbies, leads a solitary and unremarkable life [though he has one close friend, a co-worker, named Dave]. Suddenly one morning, he hears the voice of a British woman [played by Emma Thompson] narrating everything he does in his waking hours, from the number of brush strokes when he brushes his teeth, to the exact time he always arrives at the bus stop in the morning, all timed by his fancy wristwatch. But we also see, in the opening scenes of the movie, some characters Harold does not yet know about: a young boy receiving a new bike from his father, and a black woman answering the want ads for a new job as a bus driver. The event that sets into motion tragic changes in the life of Harold, the young boy, and the bus driver, is that Harold, needing to re-set his wristwatch, erroneously sets it three minutes too fast. And it is on that day that Harold begins to hear the voice of the British woman narrating everything he does, and even what he is privately longing for.
A most sensible and methodical man, Harold seeks advice from some experts to try to figure out what the mysterious voice is all about, and why he is hearing it. He consults a few psychologists. One advises him to take medication; another to use his accumulated vacation time. A third advises him to consult a professor of English Literature. This is where Dustin Hoffman comes in, playing Professor Hilbert. Together, Harold Crick and Professor Hilbert figure out that the voice Harold is hearing is a contemporary, local, but reclusive novelist named Karen Eiffel. Their discovery that she is who is narrating Harold’s life throws Professor Hilbert into despair, and Harold into terrified panic– because Ms. Eiffel always kills off her heroes, in unusual and creative ways. So now Harold knows that, unless he can find Karen Eiffel and convince her to change the ending of her story, he is destined to die. To complicate matters even more, and delightfully so, Harold has met, and has started dating, a captivating young woman who owns a bakery. Ana Pascal [played by Maggie Gyllenhaal] is charitably generous of heart and with the goodies she bakes. Her bakery is a hub of warm and merry community relationships, and she gives the extra uneaten Danishes and cookies to people who are homeless. Harold and Ana fall in love. And he develops hobbies and other passions, including learning to play guitar. He also begins to plan a way to make his best friend Dave’s dream come true of going to Space Camp. And he figures out that if Ana deducts the value of the baked goods she gives away, that will mend her relationship with the IRS. Harold now has much to live for, and every reason not to be resigned to die.
So he locates the novelist, Karen Eiffel, and just barely in time– She has written the end of the novel about Harold, but only by hand; it’s not yet typed. Harold and Professor Hilbert read the handwritten manuscript. Renewed despair and panic engulf them. In the ending Ms. Eiffel has written, Harold dies a noble and sacrificial death. In the handwritten ending, Harold arrives at his bus stop three minutes earlier than usual– just in time to jump in front of the bus to pull the young boy on the bike out of the way, and, so, save his life. That’s the heartbreaking scene we see toward the end of the movie– The young boy safe on the sidewalk, with barely a scratch, and Harold lying on the pavement in front of the bus, because he told Karen Eiffel not to change her ending, so that his life and his death would have meaning.
In the next scene, Karen Eiffel comes into Professor Hilbert’s office, offers him the typed manuscript, and says she thought he might like to read the new ending. Professor Hilbert reads it quite seriously. In the next scene, we see a hospital bed with Harold in it, in traction and bandaged up so that barely any skin shows. He is severely injured, but he is awake and alert. His perky young doctor tells Harold he was very brave –either that or he was very stupid– and that with several weeks of rest and physical therapy he will be back to normal– except for the shard of metal from his wristwatch, which had stopped him from bleeding enough to save his life. Ana bursts into the room overjoyed that he has survived. “You stepped in front of a bus to save a little boy?!” She says. “I didn’t have a choice,” Harold says, “I had to.”
Professor Hilbert lays down the manuscript in the next scene. He tells Karen Eiffel that, with the new ending, in which Harold survives, the novel, though not a great work, is okay, but that now the new ending doesn’t go with the rest of the novel. She replies that she is fine with okay, and that she’ll rewrite the rest of the novel to go with the new ending. “Why did you change the ending?” Professor Hilbert asks Karen Eiffel. She replies, “It was a book about a man who doesn’t know he’s about to die, and then dies. But if the man does know he’s about to die, and dies anyway, dies willingly, knowing he could stop it, then, I mean, isn’t that the type of man you’d want to keep alive? Sometimes [she concludes] when we lose ourselves in fear and despair, in routine and constancy, in hopelessness and tragedy, we can thank God for Bavarian sugar cookies. And, fortunately, when there aren’t any cookies, we can still find reassurance in a familiar hand on our skin, or a kind and loving gesture, or a subtle encouragement, or a loving embrace, or an offer of comfort… and uneaten Danish… and maybe [in] the occasional piece of fiction…”
In the book we call the Gospel According to Mark, if you turn to the end, some of the endings you might see there are fiction. That is widely agreed by Biblical scholars about two of the endings because the choice and phrasing of the words doesn’t match the rest of the Gospel of Mark. One of them talks about Satan. The other ends with the flowery phrase, “the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” Setting aside those two endings, the Gospel of Mark has an abbreviated ending, which appears in the earliest writings we know of, and does not describe Jesus’ ascension, and ends with the word, “afraid.” And it has a long ending, which was written down later than the abbreviated one. That long ending reads:
“Now when he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went and told those who had been with him, as they mourned and wept. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it. After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them. Afterward he appeared to the eleven themselves as they sat at table; and he upbraided them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. And he said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe; in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.’ So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it. Amen.”
Since this long ending is not present in the earliest texts that exist, the scribes of those texts either did not know about it, or they considered it to be inauthentic. And there are several ways that this longer ending just doesn’t feel like it fits with the rest of the Gospel of Mark. Yet in later texts, this long ending is the most popular one. It is present in most of the versions that exist after a certain date. So why did most of the later versions include the longer ending, even though there are ways it doesn’t seem to ring true? As I mentioned, the abbreviated ending ends with the word “afraid.” But the grammar of the Greek word used there is actually “afraid of–” with no subject designating what the women were afraid of. So the early abbreviated ending reads, “And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid of–”
The beginning of the Gospel of Mark introduces the fact that it will tell the story of “the Good News.” The middle of the Gospel of Mark contains three passages which foretell the resurrection. Then it ends with verse eight with the women telling no one, afraid (we know not of what), and no description of a resurrection nor an ascension. As such, I, and many Biblical scholars, feel it is unfinished. I believe that Mark was either interrupted in his writing while in mid-phrase, or his real ending was lost, and that the longer ending was created by later scribes, from oral history.
In our ongoing search for truth, it is important that we honor the scholarship that shows us which parts of the Easter Story were written when, and by whom, and why. And I believe we also must honor that, throughout so many years, scribes transcribing the Gospel of Mark felt moved to include more beyond a story that ended with grief, despair, solitude, and fear. All those writers and readers, speakers and listeners, longed for the graces which, though intangible, are essential to our lives– the graces of loving kindness, generosity, inclusive community, and noble sacrifice on behalf of people, things, and ideals greater than ourselves. By re-telling the Easter Story throughout the years, Christians have kept humanity’s faith in those gifts and graces alive. [Let us sing]
*Closing hymn: #95 There is More Love Somewhere
*Benediction: from, “The River of Winged Dreams,” by Aberjhani
“The death of a dream can in fact serve as the vehicle that endows it with new form, with reinvigorated substance, a fresh flow of ideas, and splendidly revitalized color. In short, the power of a certain kind of dream is such that death need not indicate finality at all but rather signify a metaphysical and metaphorical leap forward.”
*Extinguishing the Chalice