I preached this sermon on 4/8/12 at Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC, in Syracuse NY. My text was Mark 16:1-8.
Easter is my favorite Christian holiday. For some it is Christmas, for some it is Pentecost, for some it is Maundy Thursday. But for me it is Easter
Perhaps it comes from my all too lived sense of my own imperfection. I know each day I wake up I will mess up each and every day. You ever have one of those days – You know you burn the toast, You forgot to do the wash, you can’t find two shoes from the same pair, and you forgot to charge the phone and it goes dead, all before you get to the work of the day! I’ve even developed a little thing I say to myself.
So as I drive away from my house and check my rear view mirror and see the coffee mug flying off the back of my car I say to myself -“Well if that is the worst thing I do today this is going to be a great day.”
It is why I like Easter. It is the Christian, theological existential cosmic do-over. We all get a second chance. I don’t know about you but for me – I just feel myself start to breathe a little deeper and slower. I don’t have to make it all perfect. There are do-overs!
I also like Easter because even though it is at the core of our faith it is one of the most paganized of Christian holidays. The word Easter comes from the Northern European pagan celebration of Ostara. And from what little research I have done it seems that she was a goddess related to the spring.
Jacob Grimm writes
Ostara, Eástre seems therefore to have been the divinity of the radiant dawn, of up springing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted by the resurrection-day of the christian’s God. Bonfires were lighted at Easter and according to popular belief of long standing, the moment the sun rises on Easter Sunday morning, she gives three joyful leaps, she dances for joy … Water drawn on the Easter morning is, like that at Christmas, holy and healing … here also heathen notions seems to have grafted themselves on great christian festivals. Maidens clothed in white, who at Easter, at the season of returning spring, show themselves in clefts of the rock and on mountains, are suggestive of the ancient goddess. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oestre#cite_note-GRIMM291-10)
Evidently the Easter dress is part of a very long tradition as are bunnies and eggs, None of them Christian in their origin.
It speaks to the power of this message of Easter, that of new life and a second chance, that it can pull in powerful imagery and words from other religions and still be its own holiday.
It is highly possible that Easter held its own because it had the Roman Empire to protect it. But I would like to believe that it is more than that.
“Morna D. Hooker calls Mark’s ending “theologically profound” because of the paradoxical promise to believe first and then to see: “Mark insists that we must finish the story for ourselves, by setting out on the way of discipleship” (New Proclamation Commentary on the Gospels). One more voice calling us back to the way of discipleship, to following Jesus, and to a faith that is trust.” (Kate Huey Weekly Seeds April 8 2012 uuc.org)
There is the element of surprise in Mark’s gospel. He leaves the end untold. He does not tell us what the surprise is – The surprise is ours to find.
I find the ending of Mark’s gospel so compelling. Originally Mark’s gospel ended where our reading ended today, with the empty tomb. There was no sighting of the risen Jesus. No one had touched his wounds. There was only the hope that he had risen, not the promise fulfilled.
I find this compelling because today in conversations with folks I often get the question do you really believe in the actual physical resurrection. Seemingly Our world of faith has been polarized into two camps those who would believe that the bible is a written history true in every word, and those who cannot believe the phooey of the miracle stories, those stories that fly in the face of our Western 21st century science.
There seems to be no middle ground. And yet that is where I want to be. I want to live in the surprise of Easter. Imagine what it would have been like to be the women who came to the tomb. They were not coming expecting to see something spectacular. Their hearts were heavy. And they were coming as early as possible, perhaps to avoid the authorities. They were coming to do their chore, the thing that women were expected to do. They were coming to prep a dead body. A body that had belonged to someone they loved and revered,but a dead body none the less. I don’t know if it was normally a heavy burden for these women but I would think on that day it was. They were scared, they knew the authorities would be watching. They had to be careful. And most of all they were alone. And they would need help moving that heavy stone. They were really worried about that stone.
So imagine that someone you loved had died. Imagine that they had died in the hospital. Imagine that you are going into their room for one more goodbye. Imagine that you are grieving. And then imagine that you walk in the hospital room and the body is gone. The bed is not made things look a bit amiss. What might be your first reaction? Confusion – where is it? Fear – Oh no what if it is lost? Anger – How could the staff has messed this up?
Would your reactions include – Joy and exhalation in the resurrection of the person you love. I think not. For most of us almost all of the time death is a very final thing in terms of living here on this earth.
And I suspect that it was not that different for these women. Fear, confusion, anger. But no immediate joy.
Marks leaves the answer to us – What happened and what does it mean?
I cannot answer Mark’s question for you but I can answer it for myself:
Jesus is not Lord to me, or at least he is not a sedentary Lord who sits in his throne detached from this world, his travails and sacrifice over, resting on his laurels, waiting for the Holy Sprit to get in the game and pick up the ball. ” [Lord and King] these words being the designations of an empire, the secular mantle used to justify him for disciples disillusioned by his failure to return. Brought before Pontius Pilate, Jesus was mocked and discredited by the titles and symbols of kingship: a crown of thorns, a purple robe, “Hail, King of the Jews!” (John 19:1-3). And for centuries that mocking imagery has obscured the truth, … and blunted the power of what he did and what he taught.” ( Wendy Fitting UU world 11/9/09)
“The resurrection represents the living presence of Jesus, an ongoing and unsealed revelation of God’s compelling love. He is risen indeed, not to a sedentary throne in heaven, but into my life and alive everywhere that evil is persistently resisted and everywhere that a revolution for goodness is thoughtfully engaged. According to biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan, Jesus was a peasant, a revolutionary whose message was one of radical inclusiveness.” (Wendy Fitting UU world 11/9/09)
I don’t know what the resurrection meant to Jesus disciples, and I don’t know what the women at the tomb felt or experienced when they got to the empty tomb. I wasn’t there. I can only imagine what I might feel in that situation.
I was speaking with a young women a couple of weeks ago. She was facing one of those adult decisions, college was ending, and she was unsure. Actually she was more than unsure she was panicked. Emotionally she was doing what cornered animals were doing – thrashing about. She was frightened, fearful, what if her b/f didn’t hang around, what if she couldn’t find a job, should she go to grad school, what if she had to move back home. She was frightened – where were the promises, where was her safety net. What was going to hold her up.
There wasn’t a darn thing I could do for her, really. I could listen. I could tell her it would be OK. I could say that in 20 years this will just be one blip. But I couldn’t take her fear away, I wouldn’t take her fear away. She was afraid of the unknown of the surprises that might be ahead. Surprises can bring on fear not always joy.
There is the leap of faith that God calls us to. God was calling her. And if it is truly going to be a leap of faith you cannot leap thinking Oh I know it will be OK I know that I will be safe. God will hold me, or God will give me wings. It is a truth in life that first you leap and then you get wings. and in between those two movements is a fear that sucks the breath out of you and leaves you flying through your existence with a panic that will keep you up for hours on end. In my theology the human nature of Jesus could not believe or understand that he would be resurrected, no matter how much careful listening and talking his godly nature did. Jesus took that leap of faith for us and has lit the way. We know that it can be done. We know that there is the ontological do-over.
That doesn’t make it any less scary. Make me new? I like myself I’ve worked hard to see the beauty in my imperfections. Be made new? I don’t want to have to get to know someone new. What if all the rules change, what if I don’t know what to do, Like the young woman I was talking to it leaves me in a panic. I thrash about reach out to my go to comforts, too much coffee and pedantic Tv.
Marks gospel does not do much to assuage the fear of the resurrection, the fear of surprise.
Mark’s narrative as we have it now ends as abruptly as it began. There was no introduction or background to Jesus’ arrival, and none for his departure. No one knew where he came from; no one knows where he has gone; and not many understood him when he was here. (Richard A. Burridge, Four Gospels, One Jesus? A Symbolic Reading (2nd ed., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 64-65.)
So for me what it the surprise of Easter? The gift is the do-ver, the chance to live again. That life will come out of tragedy. Death is not the final answer. That is the gift.
But the surprise is this:
What Jesus is offering is an invitation to a relationship. Far from worshipping a king trapped in untouchable heavenly glory, this relationship is present and challenging.
Dorothee Sölle—“When He Came”
He needs you
that’s all there is to it
without you he’s left hanging
goes up in dachau’s smoke
is sugar and spice in the baker’s hand
gets revalued in the next stock market crash
he’s consumed and blown away
that’s what faith is
he can’t bring it about
couldn’t then couldn’t later can’t now
not at any rate without you
and that is his irresistible appeal
So what will you do with this relationship to Jesus. What will it mean to you? How will it change you? You only get the second chance if you take it. And so I say take it. Live the resurrection each and every day. Be afraid of the leap, for it is scary. But do not be afraid of the wings for they are your salvation.