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.

Easter, Prayers for Pastors

Early, Later, Finally (an Easter prayer for pastors)

And Very EarlyAfter the Sabbath,
and very early
on the first day of the week,
they came to the tomb
and saw that the stone
had been removed.

Very early,
while it is still dark,
we will rise, too,
arrange our papers,
kiss our dear ones,
and head for the park,
the river or the hilltop,
to sing
in the cool of morning
and welcome the Son.

after the dawn has broken,
we will unlock the doors,
breathe in the lilies
or avoid them if we must,
welcome the brass players,
and wonder if the words
we prepared will work
to proclaim the mystery
we cannot fully explain.

we will pray in the hallway,
or holding hands with the choir,
give thanks for the crowds,
though it’s not about numbers,
take stock of our vestments,
make sure we have the props
to tell the story to the children,
check for the last page of the sermon.

(All of them, really.)

we will stand before the people
and declare what we believe
even if we cannot understand
how it is possible:
the one who had died is alive,
the stone has been rolled away,
the tomb is empty
and the Lord
is on the move.

(Who can believe it? We try.)

in the world we see horror,
people cruel to one another,
and to themselves, treating
Your children like strangers,
like enemies, like nothing,
and we want to say to You,
we need You on the move
among us, because we cannot
seem to do this thing right.

We need your help.

in the shouted Alleluias,
in the echo of organs
and the blast of trumpets
and the beauty of story
and the love song of liturgy,
move us out of the tomb
of hate and fear.

Roll away the stone
of safe distance
and perceived difference
and cognitive dissonance.

Work through us
and work on us,
we pray,
on this Easter day
and every day.

Easter, Sermons


(A sermon for Easter Sunday    April 4, 2010    John 20:1-18)

Early on the first day of the week—

Early, early—

Mary Magdalene went to the tomb. It was so early it was still dark. And in the darkness she saw one unbelievable thing after another. 

But it was a time for supposing things that were not true.

Early on that morning, when Mary Magdalene awoke, she felt the terrible shock we do when the death of someone close is so fresh that we have to realize it again, to tell ourselves the bad news and make ourselves believe it.

We get up and move because we must, because we fear if we do not, we might never move again.

We get up and do something—anything—because anything is better than nothing.

Mary Magdalene got up and went to the tomb. It’s not clear what she went there to do, at least not in John’s gospel.

Or maybe it is. She went there to be a witness. She went there to be a disciple. Oh, she may not appear on lists of the twelve—all men—but she appears in each of the four gospels , in combination with various other women, or here alone. Every version of the story tells us that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb, early on the first day of the week.

Supposing she hadn’t?

In John’s gospel, she is the first witness to the empty tomb. She carries the message to the disciples, and they follow her back to see if she can possibly be telling the truth. 

Somewhere behind Mary Magdalene I imagine a mother telling her something like my mother used to tell me when I complained of not feeling well:  “Get up and get moving and you’ll feel better.” Keep at it. Do the tasks of daily life. Weed the flower bed. Take a walk.

Go and visit the cemetery.

And Mary Magdalene did.

When the men left, shock having been added to shock as they saw the empty tomb and for the moment failed to fully realize what had happened, Mary stayed. 

Supposing she hadn’t?

When we look back over our lives, surely all of us can identify moments of decision, especially the big ones—where to go to college, or what career to follow, or whether to get married. But I suspect it’s in the smaller moments the history of the world is written, the turning back to get something we forgot,  the smile exchanged with a stranger who later becomes a friend, the stray thought that crossed our mind and then settled to become a deeper idea or realization.

Correggio_056 Mary stayed and wept, and she saw angels—again, the number and description vary, but she always sees the transcendent delegation. They always speak to her, but here they are not the only ones. It is the risen Christ who speaks to her, asking why she weeps. She thinks he is the gardener and makes an odd leap, asking if the body has been moved, offering to carry it—to carry him—away.

“Supposing him to be the gardener”—I love that. It tells us he looked vaguely human to her, not so unfamiliar as the angels in the tomb. He looked human, though he was more than human. But he had to do more than speak for her to know. He had to say her name.

It was not just the sound of his voice, but the sound of her name that helped her really see him, though he had enough form, according to the story, that she could grab onto his feet.

What do you suppose she thought then?

I’ve had those moments, the flash of hope that the bad thing never happened, the urgent rush of optimism. “Teacher,” she cried, thinking they had it all wrong. Maybe he hadn’t died! Maybe in the shock and the despair she had misunderstood, they had all misunderstood.

Don’t hold onto me, he tells her. They meet at a liminal moment. He is between two states, and so is she. The Jesus of Friday has died, and the Christ of heaven is not yet ascended. Mary Magdalene, the grieving follower, has only a moment to kneel before him, a moment to transform into Mary Magdalene, the first evangelist.

This is a big day, the day we remember and celebrate the Resurrection. We pull out all the stops with flowers and music and new clothes and good things to eat. It is right to do it, even when it spills over into plastic eggs full of jelly beans or becomes conflated with the bulbs pushing green shoots up through soil, because these rites of Spring remind us that weeping was not the end of the story. Mary Magdalene stayed and became the witness to new life. 

“I have seen the Lord,” she said. She told the disciples and they told others, and they told others and so on until one day someone told me. One day someone told you.  We may not remember the first time we heard the story; it may be simply part of who we are. Or it may have come as a gift when we needed it desperately, a word of hope early on a dark morning.

I believe the world needs the Good News now as much as it ever has. Mary made sure to share it.

Supposing we do the same?