Sunday, April 8, 2012

Easter Sermon

Celebrating Easter is different from both Christmas and Good Friday. We have some experience with birth and death. So even if lingering questions remain around the details of Jesus’ paternity, or we feel compelled to avert our eyes from the gruesome nature of the cross, we nevertheless have a sense of what to do with Jesus' birth and death. Births include wonder and amazement—and gift giving. Death includes grief and sorrow and tears.

But we gather today to speak of new life and of the resurrection of the dead. What does that mean? What does it look like? And how would we know it if we saw it?

Even though Jesus never wrote anything down, the Jesus scholars can take us back to first-century Judaism and reconstruct with amazing skill the contours of the teachings of Jesus. They can also tell us what crucifixion was like, the Romans’ preferred method of carrying out the death penalty. Essentially these scholars function like the theological equivalent of the team from Cold Case as they go back to re-examine all of the archeological evidence in an attempt to figure out what happened.

But it is by faith alone that we dare to insist that isn’t the end of the story. It is by faith alone that we dare to proclaim that “on the third day he was raised from the dead.” You can argue that such a claim is credible, but there is no way to prove it—and if you could, then it would cease to be a matter of faith. Of the four gospel writers, Mark is most brutally honest about this. There is no Road to Emmaus story in Mark where the disciples’ eyes are suddenly opened and their hearts burn. There is no encounter with Thomas, who gets to put his hands in Jesus’ side. Just these few women at an empty tomb, and a message that he is not there. And we must be honest – for if nothing else this day compels our honesty—there are other, more logical explanations as to why a tomb might be empty than resurrection.

We walk, therefore, by faith. Especially today. That doesn’t mean that we don’t get hints and guesses along the way; we definitely do. But it does mean that you cannot prove in a courtroom, under the laws of evidence, that Jesus was raised from the dead. So what, then? Should the preacher just sit down and let it be? (Maybe, but I’m not going to take that route!)

This year it is Mark’s turn to tell us the story. You may or may not be aware that from year to year we rotate, and listen to each of the four gospel writers in turn. (Unlike Christmas, when we are always hearing the same story from Luke.) Last weekend, when we heard again Mark’s Passion Narrative, an astute listener questioned me at the door of this church about why Jesus didn’t forgive the thieves on the cross. I told her that was in Luke’s Gospel, not Mark’s. Without missing a beat, she responded: those four really should get their act together!

Perhaps. But I tend to think of the four gospel writers as four different testimonies, four different angles on who Jesus was and the differences make it interesting. As a pastor, when I am preparing for a funeral and the deceased has four grown children—I expect to hear many of the same stories as they remember their mother. But what I find most interesting are the unique experiences or the unique interpretation of shared memory. The gospel writers are the same, I think. None of them (with the possible exception of John) claim to be eyewitnesses. They are second-generation witnesses who are passing along the story they heard. Each of us tells us the Easter story in his own way.

And so in Mark, we get this strange ending—an Easter story that feels at first as if Mark never got the memo that we would be coming here to get a word of “good news” from him. Notice that those women who come early in the morning to do the work of preparing a body for burial don’t actually get to see the risen Christ himself. They are simply given a message to pass along:  

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. But 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.

Go and tell.” But, and this is the kicker: they don’t say anything to anyone because they were afraid. This is pretty funny stuff because throughout Mark’s gospel every time Jesus heals someone and is recognized as the Messiah, he tells them they must be quiet. He tells them not to tell anyone until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead. And yet he is constantly ignored and whenever he heals someone they immediately go and tell anyone who will listen, which creates this challenge of the crowds and Jesus finding it hard to ever get a moment alone.

And so now the moment has finally come. It is time! It is Easter morning. “Go and tell,” says the messenger. But they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Happy Easter!

It hardly seems promising. And yet it leaves the reader asking questions and that, I think, is what is so brilliant. If we are paying attention then we want to know, what happened next? That can’t really be the end, can it? Inquiring minds want to know:  

¨     Did those women ever overcome their fear and tell somebody?
¨     Did Jesus in fact go ahead of them to Galilee?
¨     What happened when they got there?

Compared to the three other gospels, Mark’s ending seems abrupt and maybe even a little bit disappointing. After forty days of Lent we expected something bigger. We went through this lent worrying again about race relations in this country as we try to understand what happened that awful night between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. We wait to hear what the justices of the Supreme Court have to say about President Obama’s healthcare plan. According to The Landmark, fights lie ahead for us locally as we try to figure out our level of our commitment to public education in tough economic times. Not to mention all of the stuff that maybe no one else even knows we may be carrying right now: news that the cancer has returned or we’ve just lost our job. Younger people who are sleep-deprived as they navigate the transition to parenthood; older people who are trying desperately to stay in the homes where they have decades of memories, even as their grown children lie awake at night worrying about their well-being and trying to convince them to explore a decent nursing home.

So we get up and dress up on Easter Sunday for some good news, some hope. And we get: 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.

Only here’s the thing: of all the endings, Mark’s remains my personal favorite. I can honestly say that I look forward to it when it’s his turn to speak. And I love it precisely because he does show so much restraint, and because he requires us to write our own ending, or at least the next chapter of the story.  Mark is like “The Never Ending Story” and we are invited in. We are invited to become the ones who “go and tell;” unless, of course, we are too afraid.

The fact that we are here today is living proof that that those women did overcome their fear and did find their voices. Maybe it took them a minute and a half or maybe it took them longer than that. But somehow they figured it out. They did “go and tell.” Otherwise the story ends right there in Jerusalem. And our being here today is proof that that wasn’t the case. They definitely found their voices. Those women are the first preachers of the gospel.

And those who first read Mark’s Gospel knew that, too. Even though it is the earliest of the four gospels, Mark wasn’t written down until four decades or so after all these things happened. Think about that. Those of you who were around forty years ago: think about what was happening in 1972 in your own life and in this country. That’s the time gap. By the year 70 AD, Mark’s community was a small community of house churches struggling for survival in the midst of a decaying Roman empire. And yet they were still talking about all Jesus had done and still breaking the bread. They were still gathering together to baptize and to form the next generation of disciples. Those who first heard this Gospel knew that the Lord was risen indeed the same way we do: because they had their life-together in Christ. They knew that Christ was alive because whenever two or three of them gathered together in his Name they felt his presence in their midst. And when they went into the world to serve in his name they found him true to his word—he had indeed gone ahead of them. He was already there whenever they went on mission trips—in the faces of the poor, and the hungry and the naked and those in prison.

The genius, I think, of Mark’s ending is that he means for us to see that we are the sequel.  Or more accurately, that every generation of Christians faces precisely the same choice on Easter Day that those women did. Will we let our fears paralyze this so that this becomes the end of the story? Or will we find our voices so that it can be the beginning again? Will we recognize (even in the midst of all that is wrong with the world) that we have a story to go and tell, and work to be done in Christ’s name? Because if we do, then it is Easter.

In the other gospels, it is tempting to think that the first disciples had it easier than we do: Thomas got to put his hands in Jesus side and the disciples on the Road to Emmaus got to sit at the Table with the Risen Christ.  Surely if we had those experiences we would believe, right? But Mark rightly sees that this is an illusion. And besides, the truth is that we do get to sit at the Table every week with the Risen Christ. The disciples knew the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread and we do too, if only we have eyes to see.

And so we walk by faith. Christ is always going ahead of us to prepare the way, not just in Galilee two thousand years ago, but in the places where we live and work as well. Christ has gone ahead of us, and is already at work in our world. God has a mission, and is in search of disciples who will share in that work. So if we want to find Jesus we need to go where he is…ahead of us. The lives of those first hearers, and of our own lives hold within them the seeds that, if tended, will grow as we become the next generation of witnesses of Easter. Our lives, with God’s help, will testify to the fact that Mark’s ending was in fact a new beginning—which is, after all, what this day is all about. 

So don’t look for Him in an empty tomb; he isn’t there! He has already gone ahead of us. Do not be afraid. Go and tell somebody!

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