Sunday, April 1, 2018

A Strange Beginning to a Strange Ending (Easter Sermon)

“A Strange Beginning to a Strange Ending”
Mark 16:1-8
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Easter (11:00am)

16When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”
4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.
6But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”
8So 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.

         Jesus’ death was no great surprise. Indeed, it was predictable. In Caesar’s realm, death awaits almost everyone who garners too much attention, too large a following. Things might have been different for Jesus had he given in to temptation and lived according to the ways and means of Caesar. When some one or some group gains recognition for brutality, for creating fear and enmity, for belittling and persecuting opposition, or for flaunting wealth, Caesar usually sees an ally. For Caesar, there can never be too much violence and vengeance. Violence and vengeance are life insurance for death.
         Jesus held firm in the face of temptation, though. His life was defined by humility, justice, and fearless love. He didn’t live by the sword or by an angry tongue. He didn’t shun the weak, the sick, the outcast, the foreigner. And those who truly followed him, those who allowed their lives to be storied by his example became hard to threaten. Jesus had given them everything that mattered – belonging, dignity, purpose, and not for themselves alone. Jesus had given them his Shalom as vision for all humankind, indeed, for all creation.
         Jesus posed more than a political threat to Caesar. He posed an existential one. And Caesar had no good answer for Jesus’ revolution of Shalom. To survive the onslaught of agape love, Caesar had to resort to the shock and awe of crucifixion. And that was natural enough for Caesar. He’s been doing it for millennia.
         Biblically speaking, Caesar is more than the Roman emperor. Caesar, like Pharaoh, like Jezebel, like Herod is a metaphor for human hearts turned toward power, greed, and revenge. All of these things make Caesar as predictable as he is destructive. He depends on a world un-muddied by paradox and the possibilities of radical newness. Because Caesar’s means are effective, by Sunday morning, Jesus’ followers have been reduced to three courageous women.
         Now, when those women go to the tomb on Sunday morning, they do so assuming that Caesar’s predictable realm still reigns. They expect things to follow an unwavering narrative. They will cover Jesus’ body with fragrant spices because everyone knows what unpleasant things happen to moldering organic matter. And according to long-standing tradition, embalming is women’s work.
Sealing tombs with large rocks is standard practice. And the rocks are really heavy. Gravity tends to be consistent that way. So, on their way, the women fret about who will help them move the stone away from Jesus’ tomb.
As they walk and talk, they may shed a few tears, but that’s no surprise, either. Death and grief are intrinsic to the orderly progression of things. Knowing this, Caesar sustains his ongoing crusade against Shalom by holding clouds of fear, pain, and grief over his subjects.
When the women, who don’t expect anything out of the ordinary, reach the tomb, they have an encounter that is as extraordinary as it is brief. They discover that the stone has been moved. Some guy wearing a white robe says that Jesus has been raised from the dead. He tells them that they’ll find Jesus in Galilee.
The women run away, too terrified to speak to anyone.
Most scholars consider the women’s speechless retreat from the tomb as the original ending of Mark. In all likelihood, verses 9-20 were added years after Mark finished his manuscript. But isn’t “For they were afraid” a rather unsatisfying ending?
As I sat with this story last week, it occurred to me that Mark’s abrupt ending only begins to make sense if we tie it back in with the beginning of Mark’s gospel. The opening lines of Mark are a sentence fragment: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
To me, those words feel laden with mystery, with breathless surprise, like someone saying to himself or herself, Wait. What just happened? “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Those are the words inspired by the events of Easter. And they return us exactly where the young man dressed in white says to go.
“In those days,” says Mark, “Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee.”
Mark’s ending deliberately returns us to the beginning of the story. And isn’t that what resurrection is all about – new beginnings and new life? An empty tomb proves nothing. It takes a full and fully human life to bear witness to the risen Jesus. Following him is all about returning to his extraordinary story, telling and entering it over and over again. We’re not called to try to prove the resurrection. We can’t do that. We’re called to live in the realm of resurrection, the realm of paradox and mystery – the very place that Caesar doesn’t want us to live, because he can’t control us there.
Easter people don’t try to gain access to pearly gates by regurgitating doctrinal passwords. We don’t chain ourselves to moral standards in order to avoid hell. Even Caesar welcomes that kind of religion, because it’s based on fear. Fear-based religion makes for submissive and violence-tolerant vassals.
Resurrection creates transformed and bold disciples – Easter people who follow Jesus in losing our lives, over and over, as we become more fully Christlike – and by that I mean more fully human, truer to the image of God within us. Easter people choose to live lives of paradox, fearlessly investing ourselves in Jesus’ justice, compassion, and forgiveness even when surrounded by meanness, self-indulgence, and retribution.
Easter people also confess that when Jesus’ radical ways seem too demanding or absurd we often run away, terrified and speechless. But Jesus always welcomes us back, and not because we’ve groveled in guilt and promised to be good. He welcomes us back because God is good.
         I want to close this sermon with words written by Wendell Berry. This is an excerpt from a poem entitled “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” And I hope that you will hear in it a description of, and a call to resurrection life, the life of paradox and radical newness:
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go.
Practice resurrection.

1Wendell Berry, Collected Poems, 1957-1982, North Point Press, San Francisco, 1984. Pp 151-152.