Friday, March 25, 2016

"An Unfinished Story" - Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016

Text: Mark 16:1-8

When we gathered here last Sunday, Jesus was riding into Jerusalem to the shouts of an adoring crowd.  We joined in, waving our palms and singing “Hosanna.”  But how quickly things can change.  As the week went on, Jesus kept talking about suffering and death - even at the Passover meal.  The meal that was filled with tradition.  Certain things were said, and everyone knew the words by heart.  But Jesus didn’t say the right things.  Instead, he said “This bread is my body, broken for you.  This is my blood, shed for you.”

After the meal, Judas showed up with the chief priests and their guards.  Jesus was arrested and taken away.  He was beaten and mocked and ridiculed.  Pilate, the governor, really wanted no part of it.  He even tried to release Jesus.  The custom was to release a prisoner at Passover.  Pilate asked the crowd, “Do you want Jesus?” but they answered, “Give us Barrabas.”  What about Jesus?  “Crucify him,” they said.  By the time Jesus was hung on a cross, most all of his followers had fled the scene.  Peter denied even knowing him, but most everybody else had denied him in actions, if not in words.  Only a few women remained with him through the crucifixion, watching from a distance.

Joseph of Arimathea, someone nobody would have expected, a member of the council that had ordered Jesus’ death, asked for Jesus’ body to bury it.  He hurriedly placed the body in a tomb before the Sabbath began on Friday evening.  And so on Sunday, the first day of the week, three women went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body.  They could not realistically expect to get inside the tomb, because it had been sealed with a great stone.  And the tomb was guarded by soldiers.  But one doesn’t think logically or realistically in moments like this.  When they arrived, they found a startling thing.  The stone was rolled away!  The body was gone.  A young man was in the tomb, and the Bible says (with some understatement) that the women were alarmed.  Of course they were alarmed!  They were terrified.

The young man said, “He has been raised, he is not here.  Tell Peter and the disciples that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; he will see you there, just as he told you.”

This was incredible news!  Jesus was alive!  He had risen from the dead!  What do you suppose the women did?  Jump for joy?  Dance in the street?  Run to tell others?  No, not at first, anyway.  Verse 8 gives their response: “Terror and amazement seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

This is not the part of the Easter story that gets most of the press, is it? “Terror and amazement seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  Why terror?  Why amazement?  Why did they keep the news to themselves?

If we are honest with ourselves, we may not be all that different from those women on that first Easter morning.  The fact is, new life can be scary.  Resurrection can be very threatening.  In a way, we may actually fear new life more than we do death.  Death is familiar.  Death is a known quantity.  The possibility of new life bursting forth against all expectations, against what we believe to be possible, can be very frightening.

This has not been a particularly easy week.  The bombings in Brussels have reminded us of the evil that is present in our world.  We live in a world of sin and hurt and pain, a Good Friday kind of world.  But the world has been this way for a long, long time.  It happened in Brussels, but it also happened in Baghdad, and Beirut, and Damascus, and Gaza, and Yemen.  It happened in Flint.  It happened in Charleston and Colorado Springs and San Bernardino and Boston.  It happened in Istanbul and Timbuktu and Paris.  And it happened two thousand years ago in Jerusalem.  In places too many to count, violence has been used in service of greed and intolerance and fanaticism, justified by the belief that some lives are important and others are not.

Bad news, we are accustomed to.  Cancer and poverty and disappointment and conflict and hatred and losses of all kinds – we know what that is.  Let’s face it: Good Friday doesn’t just come once a year, Good Friday is the world we live in.

The women went to Jesus’ burial place early on a Sunday morning.  They found an empty tomb and a message that Jesus had gone before them into Galilee.  And it was literally beyond belief.  They had seen Jesus on the cross.  Everybody else had left, but not them.  They watched as his body was taken down from the cross.  They saw Joseph of Arimathea lay the body in the tomb and the great stone rolled into the entrance.

Death was their reality.  And so what they found on that Sunday morning left them absolutely terrified.  It challenged everything they knew, everything they had experienced.   Jesus’ death was awful.  It was heartbreaking, but death was a known quantity.  Resurrection – that was another story.  They had no frame of reference for it.  To find that what you believe to be true, what you know to be true about how life is, is not true, can be terrifying.

“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.”  What is all the more surprising about this verse is that apparently, this is the way Mark ends his gospel.  The earliest copies we have of Mark all end with verse 8.  The early church found this abrupt ending unsatisfying, and it is no wonder that by the second century, Christians had added a few verses to the end of Mark, to explain what happened next.  In your Bible you will find a shorter ending and also a longer ending of Mark, usually in brackets or in a footnote.

But Mark himself seems to have ended the gospel with verse 8.  Terror, amazement, fear.  That’s the way it ends.  And if you think about it, this is entirely in keeping with Mark.  As we have read through this gospel these past three months, Jesus will again and again heal a person and then ask them not to tell anyone because he wants others to discover who he is for themselves.

Jesus tells parables for the same reason. “The kingdom of God is like...,” he says and, then tells a story—about a woman and a coin or a shepherd and sheep or a mustard seed or a vineyard or a Father and his sons, and the point is not always obvious, not always readily apparent.  It is left to Jesus’ hearers to figure it out for themselves.  And so just as he has done all along, Mark leaves it up to us to decide for ourselves.  It is up to each one of us to finish the story.

N.T. Wright wrote about how Mark’s gospel originally would have been read aloud to the gathered community.  They would read the gospel – probably in its entirety, as a whole, and after verse 8 was read – which was the end of the gospel – he imagines that eyewitnesses in the crowd would be called upon to tell “the rest of the story.”

It is still this way.  It is up to us – through our words and through our lives – to tell the rest of the story.  Back when we started in Mark, we read the very first verse – “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”  Mark wasn’t just saying that these next few verse are what happened at the beginning; I think he was referring to the whole thing.  “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ” is a description of the entire book.  Jesus’ resurrection was the end of the “beginning of the gospel,” if you will.   Where it goes now is up to us.

Now, you may have come here this morning for any number of reasons--maybe you always come on Easter Sunday, maybe you came for the wonderful music or for the good breakfast.  Or maybe you just woke up this morning and said, “What the heck—I’ll go.”  But I wonder if we may have come here this morning for the same reason those women went to the tomb--to pay our respects to Jesus.  To do the proper thing.  To do what is right and what is expected.  We know exactly what to expect when we come to worship on Easter Sunday.  We know exactly what to expect with Jesus.

The problem is, that’s not the way Jesus works.  The women were completely, absolutely unprepared for what they found at the empty tomb.  And sometimes it’s that way for us.  Rather than certainty, what we get with Jesus is wonder and awe and amazement.  And compared to certainty, that can be very scary.

The women didn’t stay that way, in that amazed and terrified state.  They went and told others.  The fact that you and I are here this morning is testimony to the fact that they passed on the good news.  The unfinished story was lived out through their lives, through their faith.

The same is true for us.  Christ died and rose again to give us the promise of new life.  What will be your response?  What will you do with that news?  Easter is all about the victory of life over death.  And that is exactly what we need, because the specter of death is all around us.  We live in a Good Friday world, but we have Easter hope and we are an Easter people.

This past Wednesday I attended a conference sponsored by AMOS on Affordable Housing.  At the conference, Sipele Pablo, the homeless liaison for the Ames schools, told about a 7-year old boy whose family had lost their home.  They were staying at the Ames Motor Lodge temporarily.  Until transportation to school was worked out, she was giving him rides to school.  On about the third day, she asked him to get something out of his backpack.  He opened the backpack and she saw pots and pans and all kinds of household stuff inside.  She told him that that he couldn’t take all of that stuff to school and asked him what was going on.

It turned out that when they were evicted recently, they had no transportation – no way to take their stuff with them and no place to take it anyway.  And so they lost everything.  Since then, he would look around every morning and see what he thought was important and put what he could in his backpack, so that if he came home and they had been evicted, his family would at least have something.  This 7 year old boy put pots and pans in his backpack as a way of taking care of his family.

It’s not only seen in the news headlines from Brussels or Damascus or wherever.  It is all around us.  In a world in which bombs go off in airports and train stations and 7-year old boys carry pots and pans to school in their backpacks, we desperately need Easter.  We need to know and to experience and to live in the power of resurrection.

Easter is not only about the hope of new life beyond this life.  It means far more than that.  Keith Russell said,

Easter is not (simply) triumph over the idea of death; it is the discovery of life in the midst of the experience of death.  It is the experience that God’s presence makes a difference in how we live our lives and deal with our losses.  With death being present in so much of our experience, the promise of God’s presence is power, power that helps us to develop both courage and action.  Easter helps us face not just a future reality but the manifold manifestations of death’s power present in our lives now.(1)  
Peter Gomes was the chaplain at Harvard.  An American Baptist, he was one of America’s great preachers, and died in 2011.  Gomes wrote,
When I talk with some of my psychiatrist friends and some of my psychologist friends and some of my medical and clerical friends, and even with the few legal friends I have… we discover that the basic fundamental thing that appears to hold our professional lives together and define all of our relationships with our clients and our parishioners and our colleagues is not sin, which you might expect me to say, but fear.  Everybody is fearful, terrified of some public or private demon, some terrible unnamed fear that gnaws away even in the midst of our joy, some cloud that hangs over our head or in the recesses of our spirit.

It is fear that not only holds us together but keeps us from being whole.  Fear is the great curse.  Fear that I’ll be recognized for the fraud I am – the great imposter complex.  Fear that I will fail in some worthy endeavor or fear that I will succeed in some unworthy enterprise.  Fear that I will not have enough time to do what I must.  Fear that I will hurt or be hurt.  Fear that I will not know love.  Fear that my love will be painful and hurtful.  Fear that the things that I most believe and trust are not so.  Fear that I am untrustworthy.  Every one of us is a hostage to fear.(2)
The women at the tomb were fearful.  They were just like us.  But the power of God, the power of resurrection, was greater than their fear.  They gained courage, they experienced the Risen Christ, and they spread the Good News.  And here we are, nearly 2000 years later, celebrating that same good news.  This was not simply good news for those women and for the other disciples.  It is Good News for us. 

Howard Thurman, the great African-American theologian said, “Don’t ask what the world needs.  Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it.  Because what the world needs is people who have come fully alive.”  People who have come fully alive – that is what resurrection looks like.  And that is not just a future hope, for after we die.  We can experience the power of resurrection right now.

The young man in the empty tomb said, “Do not be alarmed.  Do not be afraid.  You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised, he is not here...He is going ahead of you.”

Now it is up to us to finish the story.  Will you take hold of the new life that Christ offers?  The Good News of Easter, the amazing news of Easter, is that God's love is stronger than the power of empire, stronger than heavy stones, stronger than our greatest fears, and stronger even than death.  Christ brings new life, even in this Good Friday world.
The Lord is risen!  The Lord is risen indeed!  Alleluia!  Amen. 

(1) Living Pulpit, Jan-March, 1998, p. 21.
(2) Gomes, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living, p. 77.

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