April 12, 2020/Easter

Call to Worship

We are not eye-witnesses to an event, as were Mary and the disciples; we have not journeyed through a dangerous city to seek answers or consolation; we have not seen angels gathering at the rim of this day, or wept in the garden this morning because we could not find him.

But we are here to attest to a story that has not lost its power over twenty centuries of change and conflict.

We are here because those before us carried this story as if it were precious gold; cherished it as if it were the key to a hidden wisdom.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, let us take our places here today in celebration and in awe.

What you are about to hear again, has the capacity to change the world.

That you worship this day attests to the rising up of life from the tomb of despair, and to the uncontrollable power of God.

It is Easter morning again: and we will celebrate.

Opening Prayer

O God of all our days, we come this morning with eager anticipation.
We seek to know you, to see you, to touch you.
Open our hearts, that we might experience you anew.
Open our lives, that we may be faithful witnesses to your resurrection.
May we, with shouts of joy, proclaim your steadfast, liberating love to all people, everywhere.  Amen.

Scripture Lesson/Mark 16:1-8 (NRSV)

1When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.  2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.  3They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”  4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.  5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.  6But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.  7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”  8So 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.

Message/Shock & Awe

It is amazing how glibly we have come to use the word resurrection in our everyday speech.  Musicians and actors are spoken of as “resurrecting” their careers.  Politicians are described as “resurrecting” their campaigns and their election hopes.  Professional sports teams are wheeling and dealing, trading and selling in efforts to “resurrect” their playoff hopes.  In its popular usage, the term “resurrection” has come to be synonymous with reviving anything that’s been dormant or inert for a time.

Perhaps an important question for us to consider this morning is “does the word ‘resurrection’ holds any shock value for us anymore?”  Because of its common use in the vernacular, have we grown numb to its meaning?  Have the trappings and trimmings of the Easter season hidden from view the world-shaking, life-changing, obstacle-overcoming power?         

As I have shared with you before, I have a special affinity for the Gospel of Mark.  There is something about Mark’s raw and hard-hitting reporting of Jesus’ life that I have truly come to appreciate.  There’s no birth story of Jesus in Mark.  No shepherds or wise men.  No lengthy genealogy of “who begat whom” or the regal appearance of an angelic chorus giving concert over the fields outside of Bethlehem.  Mark’s Gospel begins abruptly.  Jesus just shows up, seemingly out of nowhere, and is led into the waters of Jordan by his fiery cousin, John the Baptist; and with the words of God, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” still echoing in his ears, Jesus is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan and hung out with the wild beasts.  Action, action, action…there’s hardly any time to catch your breath!

So, if this is how abruptly Mark’s Gospel begins, why are we so surprised that his Gospel concludes in similarly abrupt fashion?  Because the other three Gospel writers wrap things up so nicely, it probably shouldn’t surprise us that most folks will do just about anything to avoid Mark’s account of the resurrection.  It’s certainly not the satisfying “all’s well that ends well” conclusion that most of us seem to enjoy.  For example, in Matthew’s story, Jesus suddenly appears to the disciples, greeting them and commanding them to go to Galilee where they will be commissioned to go forth into the world to teach and baptize.  In Luke’s Gospel, we read of Jesus’ appearance to Cleopas and another disciple on the Emmaus road, and who is revealed in the breaking of the bread at dinner time.  In John, we are enamored by the heart-warming story of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Jesus in the garden near the tomb.  But in what is understood by most scholars to be the original ending at the eighth verse—verses 9-19 most likely added at a later time in order to kind of tidy things up—in the original ending Mark gives us no post-resurrection appearance of Jesus.  In fact, Mark paints a rather stark picture, leaving us wondering and longing for more.  After all, everyone likes a happy ending, don’t we? 

Suppose a grandfather calls his granddaughter over and says to her, “Sweetie, out on the back porch I have a special surprise for you: a new bike!”  Upon hearing this news, the little girl will probably quickly run out to see the bike.  If so, you might describe her as sprinting away from her grandfather, maybe skipping out to the porch, or perhaps as dashing or bounding out with glee.  You would not, however, say, “Upon hearing about the new bike, the little girl fled from the presence of her grandpa.”  End of story.  End of the story?  Really?  That’s not much of an ending, is it?!

But Mark’s story ends with silence rather than “Alleluia!”  Alleluia wasn’t the word the women said at the end of their long night of waiting.  It’s not what they said when the Sabbath was over as they made their way to the tomb.  They had been there on Friday when Jesus died, when the sky turned dark at midday and the earth convulsed in the cosmic upheaval of the moment.  Mark remembers all three women by name: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome all three of whom looked on from a distance as Jesus was crucified.  Mary Magdalene had been there when Joseph of Arimathea wrapped Jesus’ lifeless body in linen and laid him in the tomb.  These women asked a pressing question as they walked toward the grave: “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”  And when they neared the tomb they saw that the stone had been rolled aside.  But even then, they didn’t shout Alleluia.  Even after they heard the young man in white tell them that Jesus had been raised, they didn’t shout “Christ is risen!”  That’s certainly what we want them to say, but they didn’t behave as we would like.  They fled from the tomb—and as Scripture tells us “terror and amazement had seized them.”  The words are even stronger in Greek: tromos – is where our word “trauma” comes from, and the Greek word ecstasis –is the root of our word “ecstasy.”  Trauma and ecstasy had seized them.  They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.  Mark’s gospel ends in silence and Jesus never appears.

One of the most striking features of Mark’s telling of Easter is how it is framed by motion.  The women begin in verses 1-4 moving toward the tomb, and they end in verse 8 moving rapidly away from the tomb.  Indeed, that last verse shows them almost exploding away from the tomb, hurtling outward like shrapnel from the middle of an explosion.  Verse 8 is almost like some freeze-frame which catches the women in mid-flight.  Picture them with eyes wide in surprised terror, their arms outstretched like some sprinter racing for the finish line, their feet a blurry smudge of rapid motion.  They flee the tomb, and Mark snaps a photo for us, freezing the action, showing the women in motion.

But in between this back and forth movement of the women is still more motion: Jesus is also on the go.  The women arrive at the tomb and encounter a young man who says, “You are no doubt looking for Jesus.”  Yes, they were.  Since he was, as the young man admits, “crucified,” it made sense to seek Jesus in a cemetery.  But he’s not there.  “You just missed him,” the young man as much as says.

Why couldn’t Jesus have waited!?  Why do the women need to deal with a proxy, a stand-in, a substitute whose only purpose seems to be to tell the women that, indeed, they just missed Jesus?  He’s gone, on the road, moving right along to Galilee.  “He’s going ahead of you,” the young man says.  So, if they want to see Jesus, you need to get going again.  For some reason, Jesus did not hang around to be encountered at the tomb.  Easter morning, according to Mark, is not about running over to where we think Jesus is and then sitting down with him for coffee and conversation.  Easter morning is not about throwing a party; it’s about Jesus in motion.  It’s about our being in motion, too, if we hope to catch up with and so see him.

Jesus wasn’t there that morning because there was too much work to do!  A dying world was in need of the renewing grace which only the resurrected Jesus could give.  This was a task that couldn’t wait.  Jesus could not and would not hang out at a tomb he no longer needed just to greet his friends and have a little celebration.  He had to go on up ahead of them, demanding that if they wanted to see him, they’d have to get moving, too.  So why does Mark end so enigmatically? Why this puzzling final image of bewildered women, silent in their fear?  Well, certainly fear was an appropriate thing for these women to feel.  Not only did something totally unexpected take place, but this particular unexpected thing was fiercely cosmic.  It shattered reality.  It changed everything, and the first people to ponder that mind-addling fact were right to feel a little afraid.  Any other reaction would have been downright weird!

But what about Mark’s leaving them that way?  Why this snapshot of the flight in terror as Mark’s final word?  Well, at the very least it creates some tension, a challenge for all of us.  We see the silent and fearful women and exclaim, “But the gospel can’t end in silence!  There’s just got to be more to the story than this!”  Perhaps this, then, is where we come in.  Mark writes this open-ended gospel that threatens to end in failure, you see, precisely to place the burden of responsibility for telling the good news squarely on our shoulders.  Mark isn’t terrible at endings, it turns out, he’s brilliant, and by ending his account in this way, he invites us into the story, to pick up where these women left off and, indeed, go and tell that Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, has been raised, and is going ahead to meet us, just as he promised.  

Ultimately, the women’s silence creates a space for the voice and presence of God to resound.  It’s one thing just to be afraid or even to have your world turned upside down, but it’s an entirely different thing to have an encounter, an experience, with God’s power and presence.  Shock is an appropriate response, but so is awe at what God has done in raising up Jesus.  Charles Campbell asks, “If stones are rolled away without human effort, if Jesus really is raised from the dead, what other human assumptions about wisdom and folly, power and weakness, will likewise be proved false?”  Things may never be the same, our assumptions may never be safe again, but we are not alone. Campbell sums it beautifully: “Jesus is loose in the world.  He is not in our present as a lifeless corpse or in our past as a distant memory.  Rather, he goes ahead of us into the future to meet us there and claim us, not on our terms, but on his.”

Of all the Easter gospels, Mark’s story invites us to stand where those first trembling witnesses stood.  Those three women didn’t see Jesus.  And neither do we.  They didn’t hear Jesus call their names.  Neither have we.  They weren’t invited to touch his wounded hands.  We haven’t touched Jesus’ hands either.  So how will we tell this story?   Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome stand beside us today.  In their silence they remind us that the life of faith is shaped by trauma and ecstasy, trembling and amazement.  The silence at the end of Mark’s gospel is always waiting to be filled in by people of every generation, waiting now for you and for me.  How will we end the story?

Closing Thought & Benediction

William Sloan Coffin—”Resurrection gives meaning to life.  You and I are both one day closer to death today than we were yesterday.  We may even fear the process of dying.  But our death is not an end.  It is a beginning, a chance to start all over, new and fresh, as a human being living on this earth in the new creation.”

If the God who raised Jesus from the dead is for us, who dare be against us?

Let us therefore step out into the world in faith—

there is nothing about to happen that God has not foreseen, and no situation where Christ will not be there ahead of you, preparing a place and an opportunity for you.

May the peace of God, which goes beyond all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of God, and of Jesus Christ, God’s Son.

And the blessing of God all-loving, the Creator, Redeemer and Counselor, will be with you now and always.  Amen!