The Feast of the Resurrection: April 1, 2018
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
Happy Easter! And Happy April Fools’ Day! For the first time in 62 years, we have these two holidays together. The possibilities are endless. Empty wrappers and frozen peas in the Easter eggs. Or superglue the eggs together so they won’t open. OR send everyone on an Easter egg hunt – but don’t hide any eggs. You get the idea. Unfortunately, in 2029 and 2040 the two holidays will coincide again – so be careful about your Easter pranks this year. 11 years is not too long for revenge.
This coincidence of dates needn’t really mean much of anything at all to us, of course. Much more interesting to have Passover and Easter weekend coincide, as they do this year…But then again, fellow fools for Christ, maybe it could tell us something. Maybe the biggest fools prank of all is that empty tomb. There they go, the women in the early morning hours, ready to tend the body of their beloved teacher killed a few days before. But instead, Surprise! There’s a guy in a robe sitting there instead. And he says, It really has happened, just the way he said it would. He is not here – he is risen. Go and tell everyone!
And so, Mark the evangelist says, the women ‘went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.’
Terror, amazement, and fear. Is that what got you here to church this Easter morning?
In his Easter message this year, our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry talked of meeting with a group of Iraqi Christians living in a refugee camp in Jordan, who have fled their homes because of persecution. Bishop Curry quoted a familiar Easter hymn, one we don’t sing in our tradition. The chorus goes:
Because he lives, I can face tomorrow.
Because he lives, all fear is gone.
Because I know he holds the future.
And life is worth the living just because he lives.
I’ve been singing that all week. Because he lives, all fear is gone. All fear is gone. And yet we find it so hard to let go of that fear. It seems foolish to let our guard down.
We have four different versions of the Jesus story in our four gospels, and each one of them tells the story a bit differently. Mark’s gospel that we heard from today is the only one that ends on a cliffhanger like this – women run off from the tomb and tell no one, and that’s the end. It’s such a strange ending that people have tried to fix it through the centuries – if you open a Bible you’ll see an optional 12 more verses including two different endings, like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, that try to clean things up, with the women changing their minds and sharing the news after all, or with Jesus showing up himself a few more times to everyone so the news gets out. But scholars agree that those added verses aren’t original to the manuscript. So others have suggested that the women really did tell some people, just not everybody; or that we, the listeners, are of course expected to fill in the rest of the story, everyone knows that; or, my favorite, that maybe Mark was arrested or died just after writing verse 8, interrupted in the act of his work. He meant to write further, he just didn’t get to. It bothers people, this ending, for a lot of reasons. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
All through the gospel of Mark people respond in different ways to Jesus. One of the stories Jesus tells is the parable of the sower, the story where the seed is sown but falls on different kinds of soil with different results. And just so, some people have been receptive to Jesus and many haven’t. The religious and political authorities have not received him well, of course – that is why he ends up crucified at the hands of the state. But, harder to accept, Jesus’ own disciples haven’t accepted him well either. Mark in particular paints those disciples as dumber than dirt – in this gospel, when Jesus calls Peter the rock, he’s referring to the thickness of his skull, not the solidity of his faith. And by the end when everything has gone horribly wrong, every one of those disciples has fled, terrified. Then, for a brief moment, these three women appear on the scene, hopes rise for a happy ending – but then they too, at the surprise and terror of the empty tomb, run away in fear. And that’s where the story ends.
Or is it? One of my seminary professors years ago, Mary Ann Tolbert, suggests that Mark ends his gospel at this bewildering point on purpose – not as the end of the story, but as the beginning. Mark wants to compel the audience – that is, us – into action. These people all failed Jesus and ran away. They were not the good soil for the seed to take root and grow. So what about you? what kind of soil will you be?
Well, we got here to church on Easter morning, so that says something for us, at least. We’re here to celebrate the resurrection, the glory of new life that is stronger than death. Something wonderful has brought us here, and the music and the windows and the people are beautiful, and we want for the good news to be true. Oh, but we find it so hard to hold onto this celebration, don’t we? We can feel beaten down in this world, beaten down by our cares, our routines, our despair. We can get distracted by other things, caught up in the pressures for success, appearance, financial security. We can have our joy choked out of us by what feel like unanswerable questions, by illness, by our own inner demons and addictions. We can be taken up and consumed with fear. And all around us we see reason for our fear in the world: rising sea levels and nuclear weapons, homeless refugees and schoolchildren gunned down, government corruption and capricious power unchecked. Our world seems full of the wrong kind of soil. We humans do seem dumber than dirt. So we see the empty tomb and we run away, saying nothing to anyone, for we are afraid. It feels foolish to do otherwise.
Besides Easter, and Passover, and April Fools Day, this week, April 4, marks the 50th anniversary of the shooting of Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. King spoke once in a sermon of an old woman called Mother Pollard who took part in the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. One night Dr. King spoke at a mass meeting, trying to hide his weariness, full of fear from threatening phone calls and a recent arrest. Mother Pollard called him over to her after the meeting and said, something’s wrong with you tonight. And then, Dr. King said, she looked into his eyes and said, “I don told you we is with you all the way.” And then with a countenance beaming with quiet certainty she concluded, “but even if we ain’t with you, God’s gonna take care of you.” Those words of hers, Dr. King wrote, came back to him over and over through the next several years, giving him light and peace in the dark times. Light and peace that carried him right through to the end and beyond. God’s gonna take care of you. Words that cast out fear.
And yet, they’re foolish words, aren’t they. For Dr. King was killed. Jesus was crucified. Bad things happened and still happen and they will go on happening. What fools we are to think otherwise.
St. Paul said something about this to a group of worldly-wise people in Corinth finding it hard to believe: For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1 Cor. 1:18, 25)
There’s something about the power of all these words. God’s gonna take care of you. Because he lives, I can face tomorrow. He has been raised – just as he told you. They don’t take away what’s happening in the world as it is. But they begin to show us the shape of the world as it can and will be – even as it is, right now. The foolishness of the cross, the foolishness of resurrection, is that it shows us that what we see around us, the way we construct our reality, the way we live our lives, is not all there is. Just like quantum physics upset our common sense Newtonian minds, the resurrection upsets our certainty that this material world is it. That suffering and death are the last word. That this road we’re on has a dead end.
Bound up by our own pain and grief, our thrall to the ways of the world around us, our fear of the unknown, even so we come up against that shining empty tomb. Stuck in our limitations, we are impelled somehow to see beyond. Because right to us in all of our stuckness, God comes. Life shatters the stone walls. Bearing the scars of suffering, yet fully alive, Jesus comes to us, his beloved, and offers himself again. Look, you fools, he says – see me – know that God is faithful no matter what. No matter what people can do to us, no matter what illness or pain or suffering comes our way, no matter how bad things get in this world, God can be trusted. God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. We can face tomorrow because he lives. We don’t have to fear. Standing on Jesus’ solid ground, we can rise.
I don’t know where you find yourself in this story today. I don’t know if the ground feels solid to you or if your world is in the midst of being rocked. Or whether you’re not even sure just why you’re here. But we have words today to share – foolish words maybe – but words that are wiser than the fools we can so often be. Christ is risen. He is risen from the dead. So do not be afraid. Go, and tell the good news. Alleluia.