First Congregational United Church of Christ
Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015
Mark 16:1-8 “Yes to Life!”
Rev. Diane K. Hooge
It’s been many years since my mother’s death, but I remember very clearly standing in my parent’s bedroom on a June day going through my mother’s clothes. She had died in May, and I had told my Dad that I would return in June to help him clean out her personal belongings. I had a pile to be thrown away, piles to be washed and piles to go to Goodwill. My Dad came in and out of the room desiring to help, but yet unable to help. One of the most poignant moments was when I opened a drawer and began going through a stack of scarves. My Dad held one to his face, and the fragrance that met him pushed him into deep sobs of grief. I had no words for him. I could only stand with him and honor his wracking pain.
He had lived through five years of anticipatory grief as my mother had battled colon cancer. He had been the primary caregiver as she dropped dress sizes and became so small and unfamiliar to all of us in her final days.
Death takes away so many things: unfulfilled dreams, joy, intimacy, and presence. It leaves behind closets of accumulation, projects, books, papers and unshared memories. It breaks the cycle of familiar and sets up a raggedy era of false starts and rocky new beginnings, most of which feel wooden and unnatural. Life lived in grief often has a foggy unfocused quality about it. Loving hands drop off a meal in a season of life when we frequently feel least able to eat.
On this Easter morning 150 families along with their friends are feeling the weight, shock and horror of the death of their loved ones scattered in the French Alps. And, every airline in the world has to be scrambling to figure out how to prevent such an unfathomable act.
In this community, we gathered last Thursday to celebrate the life of Sonya Gremmels, beloved member of this community.
So, out of the events of our own lives…out of our own stories of loss, grief and darkness, we’re invited into this OH so familiar story. However, it’s important to remember that each of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark Luke and John are narrative accounts of the resurrection. They were shaped for particular social and religious contexts within the communities in which they were formed. They reflect the theology of each author. Every three years, we review the account from Mark.
The cast of Mark’s Gospel is made up of Mary Magdalene, who has had her life radically changed through Jesus’ healing touch. There is the other Mary, the mother of James and John, along with a woman by the name of Salome (Sal O may). These women have been at the cross. Anyone who has lived through the death of a loved one understands the sleeplessness that would put them on the road to the tomb before the light of day. They have the added trauma of the horror of visceral and visual memories of the violence leading up to and including the day of Jesus’ crucifixion. Their world has been shattered. Part of the healing for them is to be able to “do something.” And so they are carrying the spices to anoint Jesus’ body. As they move through the early morning, they are focused on the obstacle –the stone. Upon arrival, they are stunned to find the stone already rolled away. They waste no time slipping in and around the stone to enter the tomb. Upon entry, we meet the next figure, a young man dressed in white, sitting on the right side. There is an adrenaline rush for all of them as they realize that this is no ordinary man.
There is a divine presence about him. He tells them to put aside their fears and informs them that Jesus is no longer in the tomb. In the midst of their shock, he emphasizes his pronouncement by encouraging them to take in the emptiness of the grave.
The angel gives them directions: They are to go and tell Jesus’ disciples, including Peter, that Jesus is going ahead of them to Galilee, and that they will see him just as he told them. Today’s text ends with the women being so filled with terror and amazement that they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. Period. End of story. This is the oldest version of the story, and it is written by minimalist Mark. There are none of the events that the other writers found important: No earthquake, no blinding light, no appearance by Jesus to comfort the disciples and no happy reunions.
It’s a bit unsettling, isn’t it? It’s also so very human. From a storyteller’s standpoint, the beauty of this text is that it leaves the reader to have to struggle. The story mirrors our own confusion, our own doubts, and our own fears.
We have to back up and review Mark’s opening words: “This is the beginning of the Good News.” He is talking about the whole Gospel.” And, we’re tempted to fix bad endings, which is what happened in Mark’s Gospel. The additional pieces or verses following these words in Mark are known as “The longer ending.” They appear to have been added, in colloquial terms, “to make nice.” The additions shore up the story to rid it of its awkwardness. Let’s face it, having women who kept silent does not fit with how we do Easter. It doesn’t fit with fanfares and upbeat music and Hallelujah’s and chancels filled with flowers. It doesn’t fit with Easter outfits and reservations for brunch. Some of us long for John’s Gospel that states that the women at the tomb ran back to the others and announced the resurrection. That’s the kind of dialogue that lends itself to great sound bites, doesn’t it?
The reality is our varied Gospel lessons on the resurrection offer us several perspectives. This version offers us hope in the promise. The women are given an enormously compassionate message that is to be delivered to Peter. The Divine is gently tending to the one who had denied Christ not once, but three times. However, the inner circle of Jesus’ followers are paralyzed…in shock…unable to carry the message. And, the challenging part of this story is that these reactions are so very familiar…aren’t they? Peter immediately went to old patterns of behavior and lied about having known Jesus or having been a part of Jesus life. He essentially began piling up rocks around him creating his own tomb. In his panic, he sought protection and succumbed to an old pattern of behavior that was familiar, but certainly did not serve him. And the challenging part of this section of the story is that Peter’s story is our story. We often succumb to old patterns of behavior when we are under stress.
As a child I heard Easter sermons that preached the view that fear was part of one’s lack of faith. I maintain that it is part of our humanness. In the midst of our fears, in the midst of our terror, God cherishes our stepping out in faith as we seek the mystery of resurrection. Grief is part of the journey. Even when we are reaching for the new, we have to let go of some old pattern that for whatever reason has served us, even if it is no longer a valid form of service. Resurrection is a process. It demands that we believe in the hope offered by the risen Christ. Every year I wrestle again with Christine Smith’s book, Risking the Terror: Resurrection in This Life. As she puts it, “One experiences resurrection life because something is present, and this presence is what is saving and transforming.” It’s not about holding on to, or somehow having to prove the empty tomb…it’s about the action of God. It’s about being a witness to the “life changing power” of God. Every time I listen to one of the members of this church offer their life journey story in our adult education class, I become a witness to God’s power in their life. My faith is strengthened listening to their story. I am always moved by things I never knew, and am touched by the sacred power of story.
Yesterday I listened to a Vimeo from Yale University. Describing a forum that they are holding this coming Wednesday. The focus is on the upcoming new Encyclical which is coming from the Catholic Church and will be delivered by Pope Francis this summer. This is the highest level of teaching in the Catholic Church and Encyclicals are considered rare. And it is the first one focused on the environment. Yale is preparing their audience for the impact of Pope Frances’ words to the 1.2 billion Catholics. This work and word of Pope Frances, is in preparation for the climate negotiations that will take place in Paris in December. In September, he will speak on this issue at the opening session of the United Nations and then will go before Congress to advocate both social justice and eco justice.
The environmental professors of Yale are interested in the moral voice of Pope Francis. They are interested in how he connects the climate change to his concern for the lives of the poor. As California is scrambling to deal with the overwhelming drought, and as we nervously hold our concerns for the lack of snow pack, we are growing more aware of the tomb we are building for ourselves and the next generation if we do not mobilize to create change. Pope Frances is part of an environmental resurrection movement in the Catholic Church. The United Church of Christ is also part of this movement, and in our local church we give thanks for the work of the members of our Justice and Witness Team who are working vigilantly to raise the consciousness of our church, city, state and nation to transform how we view the sacredness of creation. What we cling to is the fact that “Resurrection is God’s limitless ability to raise up life in the midst of every conceivable death.” (Christine Smith)
Years ago, I volunteered with a Battered Women’s Alternative organization. I discovered the enormous courage that it takes for abused victims to dare to leave their graves. To trust the power of the Divine that resurrection is possible takes the power of someone who is willing to reach out to the one entombed in despair and walk with them from death to life.
What Jesus taught by his actions was the importance of community. He began with calling folks into community and then he taught them a way of life through his actions. We are called to carry on the work of resurrection.
Professor and writer, C.S. Song has stated that “The Resurrection is essentially the proclamation that the reign of God is here and it is in the midst of us in the world….God’s power is not, and will never be ultimately controlled or silenced by the forces of violence, injustice and death.” This is the heart of the Gospel. It is individual, social and political. It is about transformed humanity and a transformed world.
We too, like the women of our text, often focus on the unmovable stones in our lives. The invitation to us is to see beyond the obstruction…to look towards the potential in the new—God’s new story for us.
As always, we are invited into the story. When and how are we being invited to be transformed? The story of the resurrection is less about finding Jesus than of being found by Jesus.
The resurrection is the mysterious profound piece of our faith.
Resurrection is God’s ability to lift up life in the midst of every conceivable death.
The audacious invitation is always the same. We are invited to hand over our fears and terror and to surrender to allowing God to do Easter in God’s own way within us. May we dare to say “Yes” to authentic life. Amen.
“Life, life is what you must affirm, no matter how painfully, even unwillingly…You are reliable only when others ascertain they will always find life in your presence. Others must know you as faithful, faithful so often that when they wonder where life lives, they will think of you as one in whom life has made a home.”