Unexpected Twists

Flower cross at Faith United Church of Christ
Flower cross at Faith United Church of Christ

(A sermon for Easter Year B April 5, 2015 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Mark 16:1-8)

It was an Easter morning, some years ago in a church far away. The bulletin clearly listed the passage: Mark 16:1-8. In that church, where I was the interim pastor, the lay reader for the day led various prayers and read all the scriptures. On that morning, I listened as the reader reached the end of the gospel lesson, “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.” I took a breath and prepared to stand and move to the pulpit, but wait! Clearly convinced the bulletin contained a misprint, she continued to read. “Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons.”

The story seemed incomplete to her. Of course she must be meant to go on and read the Longer Ending of Mark, containing various appearances by the risen Christ and the naming of signs of power passed on to his disciples, including the handling of snakes. Scholars believe later editors added these verses to make the gospel sound more finished, more like the others.

Terror and amazement seized me. I quickly considered the possibilities for handling this unexpected twist in my morning. If it hadn’t been for the snakes, I might have let her continue, but instead I went to the lectern and quietly said, “We are stopping at verse 8 today.”

She murmurer, “I thought it was 18,” and after receiving an encouraging smile and a pat on the arm from me, took her seat, I hope never considering that she would someday become a sermon illustration.

It was an uncomfortable situation.

Stopping at verse 8 leaves us all in similar discomfort. We crave the resolution the additional verses bring. We resist this telling of the story because we know it can’t be true that the women never told anyone. A story in the Bible is hardly the world’s best kept secret.

I find the discomfort compelling. Three women arrive at the tomb, their horror and bereavement still fresh, their bodies and minds and spirits unsettled. They have come to the tomb with a plan for their actions, a set of expected rituals meant both to mark the death of their friend and teacher, and to help them begin the mourning process. The reality of Jesus’ death weighs on them as they worry about how they will get into the tomb to anoint his body. Who will roll away the stone?

Then things gets real, but unreal. The stone is already rolled away, the tomb already open. Instead of a dead body, they find a young man in white. Then they hear the kind of news we might all fantasize about getting when a loved one dies unexpectedly.

The gospel tells us “they were alarmed.”

I should think so!

We can each recall times in our own lives when the unexpected shocked us; we can remember the effort it takes to regather ourselves and decide how to respond. Our paths are strewn with these kinds of moments, in which grief or anxiety or excitement influence and heighten our perceptions of reality.

Psalm 22 says,

I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast.

This expression of being spiritually and emotionally disjointed describes human feelings of shock that transcend time and place.

In my own life, I remember the phone call when my father tried to tell me that my mother was dying, and could only repeat in a mumbling drawl, “It’s bad. It’s bad.” The emotion in his voice, even more than the precise yet kindly words of the doctor who later explained all the factors in her metastatic cancer, conveyed the end of the world as we knew it. Years later, a late night phone call from my son brought news that he had been thrown from a car and was calling from an emergency room. I had to remind myself that the very fact he was on the phone meant he must still be alive. This was good news! I needed to inform others, but shaken by the unexpected twists – thrown from a car! but not dead! able to call me himself! – I struggled to put the facts into words.

These more ordinary situations have a parallel in the response of the women; their fear reminds us that Christ’s resurrection is not simply reliable news to be taken for granted, but instead a truth so shocking that even the first people to hear it, people who heard it on the spot where it happened, could not imagine how to tell anyone else. Despite the editorial attempt to round the story out later, the gospel of Mark ends on a questionable note.

And what I love is that these women in Mark have a story more like ours. We did not witness the risen Christ in person. Someone else told us the story and asked us to believe it. Someone else told us the Good News and asked us to share it.

My mother's bunnies
My mother’s bunnies

The long history of our faith includes a few people who told that news convincingly, but many more of us who struggle to express it. Easter has become a spring festival of flowers and bunnies and candy, a Hallmark holiday, because those are things easier to explain. When I bought tulips yesterday, the florist offered to put in a sparkly egg on a stick, “to make it look more Easter-y.” We love the cycle of new life we see each spring. We love that the days get longer, and the crocuses appear, and after them the daffodils and the forsythia. We love jelly beans. *I* love jelly beans. *I* look forward to putting my mother’s china rabbits on the dining room table every Easter. They sat on the same table at her house, their serious and inquisitive expressions watching over our Easter dinner of lamb with mint jelly.

That version of Easter feels easy to explain.

How do we share this harder-to-tell story from the gospel?

How do we explain that we worship a man who was God, a man who some people loved but more people hated, a man who died a terrible and humiliating death on the cross? How do we explain that we believe his tomb stood open and empty when his friends went to grieve him?

After my mother died early on a Saturday evening in 1993, the ladies of the garden club and the bridge club gathered around my family to stand sentinel over the old-fashioned ritual of paying calls on the bereaved. I’ve often thought of the watchful women who went to Jesus’ tomb on that Sunday morning in relationship to the ladies whose names were written on a spiral notebook page, their shifts determined in sad-toned phone calls. Most of them were older than my mother, who died at 67.They worked out their grief with industry and faithfulness, anointing us with gifts of food: Brunswick stew and collard greens and special chicken salad from a favorite local shop.

One of my mother’s friends had been receiving radiation treatments herself, and they damaged her taste for food and therefore her appetite. Her family worried how to keep her strong enough to survive the treatment intended to save her. Nothing tasted good. Yet she came to take her turn, and during a lull in the visits, we sat at the kitchen table together, each of us with pieces of sandwich cut carefully into quarters. On my plate were four, but on Shippy’s only two. She bit into the first of the small triangles, and her eyebrows went up just a little. Then she took another bite. “This tastes good,” she said, in a tone of amazement.

I’m not claiming the chicken salad was miraculous, but Shippy started feeling better and growing stronger that spring of my mother’s death. Even without knowing what the future would hold, in that moment at the table I felt an unexpected twist in the story, a little resurrection, a small victory over death.

Sometimes that is all we dare testify to, a small victory, a little resurrection. Like the women in Mark’s gospel, we may hesitate to tell the great good news. Yet it is news the world desperately needs to hear, in the midst of sadness and hatred, violence and discrimination, polarization and prejudice. God showed love for us by becoming one of us. Even though people did not understand, even though humankind killed the man who embodied that love, God’s love can never die.

It is a hard story to tell because the resurrection victory seems strange in the world’s terms. The risen Christ did not appear with an army to defeat the authorities who crucified him. In Mark’s gospel he did not appear at all. The unexpected twist came in a tone of amazement: “He has been raised; he is not here.”

This is the truth. Do we dare to proclaim it? The tomb is empty. Christ is risen! Alleluia!Alleluia! Christ is risen! Amen.

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