The Re. Clare Fischer-Davies
St. Martin’s Church
April 12, 2009
“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.”
Now – what kind of an Easter proclamation is that? Here we are – on this Easter morning, in a church full of the rich scents of hundreds of flowers, gleaming with our finest silver, our splendid choir enhanced by brass and timpani – all ready to celebrate the day of the Lord’s resurrection. We are ready to meet the risen Christ, and to cry out that “Christ is risen, indeed”. We are ready for the end of the story – ready for answers to all our questions.
But that’s not what we get in Mark’s account of that first Easter morning. We just get more questions.
The story starts out the way we expect – with three women coming to the tomb as soon as the Sabbath is over – they have had to wait 36 long hours to tend to the broken, bleeding body they saw laid in that tomb when Jesus was taken down from the cross. They are coming to perform the rites loving hands have performed for millennia, coming to wash and anoint the body, preparing it for burial. They are worried about the heavy stone rolled in place across the opening of the tomb – and their first question is “who will roll away the stone for us?” wondering how they will get inside the tomb.
But when they reach the tomb, they see it gaping open – the stone has already been rolled back. And now their questions multiply: “What has happened? Has the body been stolen? Has it been violated? Are there enemies of Jesus waiting inside to hurt those who loved him?”
They enter the tomb and see only a young man in a white robe. More questions: “Who is he? Where has he come from? What does he know?” and the mysterious messenger says, “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. But 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.”
Well, it is an answer – but it is a strange and shocking answer. The women turn around and run away from the tomb, too terrified and amazed to say anything to anyone. And so we are left with more questions – what did the women do? Did they finally tell Peter and the others? Were they believed? Did anyone even go to Galilee? What on earth happens next?
This is no way to end a Gospel. We expect to have our questions answered, all our doubts resolved, every thread tied up neatly so that we can put this Holy Week and Easter behind us and get back to our normal lives. We want to know how it all turns out, so that we don’t have to think about it anymore.
We are not the first people to be unsatisfied with this non-ending ending to Mark’s Gospel. Later editors added other endings that provided the resolution Mark lacks. Matthew, Luke and John – all writing after Mark, and using Mark as a source – are so unsatisfied that they add to the ending in their own ways. Look! The risen Christ appears on a mountaintop and gives his disciples more instructions. Look! The risen Christ appears to two brokenhearted people on the road to Emmaus and reveals himself to them in the breaking of bread. Look! The risen Christ eats a breakfast of grilled fish and tells Peter to take care of the church. That’s the happy ending we expect – the happy ending we need.
But it’s not the ending that Mark gives us. We are stuck this morning with this ambiguous, bewildering ending – with a promise that we will see Jesus that we can hardly hear because of all the uncertainty, dread and confusion pounding in the hearts of the women as they run away from the tomb. We are stuck this morning with an ending that is not an ending – an ending that will not let us pack this story up neatly and walk away from it for another year.
It hasn’t been so long since we heard the first words of Mark’s Gospel – it was just a few months ago that we heard “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ the Son of God.” And in its own way, that’s just as unsatisfactory a beginning as “told no one for they were afraid,” is an unsatisfactory end. Mark doesn’t tell us where Jesus was born, he doesn’t tell us anything about shepherds or angels or who Jesus’ parents are – he doesn’t even start with a complete sentence – just “The beginning of the Good News.”
We are plunged into a story that really is just as ambiguous and bewildering and full of loose ends as its ending. Who is this Jesus of Nazareth? Where does his power come from? How can he make the dead walk and the blind see? Why does he speak with such authority? The disciples in Mark’s story are always misunderstanding, always getting things wrong – they spend all that time with Jesus and they are no closer than we are to figuring things out.
And then Mark takes us to Jerusalem – and to a bitter betrayal, a trumped up trial and finally to the most shameful, ghastly death the Roman Empire could dream up. The story just gets sadder and more confusing – Jesus willingly goes to death on a cross – this Jesus who could command wind and waves, who cast out demons and brought the dead back to life – lays down his own life and cries out from the cross “My God, my God – why have you forsaken me?”
Don’t you want it to be over? I do. I want the resolution – the pay off – the reward for walking with Jesus through this Lenten season – the reward for my Lenten fast and the hours of prayer and reading and reflection. I want the neat Hollywood ending that means I can go out to dinner tonight with that satisfying knowledge that Christ is risen and Easter is over.
But Mark just won’t cooperate. We heard the story begin, but I don’t think we hear the story end. I think that Mark is telling us that the story isn’t over – Christ is risen, but that’s only the beginning of a new chapter. And how that chapter unfolds is up to us. Jesus is going head of us in the new life of the resurrection – are we going to follow or not?
Waylan Tucker gave us his vision of Easter morning with his bulletin cover art – and if you had a chance to read the Easter letter, you know that this picture gave us pause when we first saw it in the office. We were expecting something more abstract, something that hinted gently at new life, that breathed the sweet scent of lilies and comforting promises over us. But instead, Waylan gave us one hairy leg, with a pierced foot, quickly moving away from an empty tomb.
And that’s a really good way to visually interpret Mark’s Easter gospel. The mysterious young man says that Jesus has been raised and is going ahead of us to Galilee. We can see him – we can be with him – but we’re going to have get moving. Jesus isn’t hanging around to see who shows up – he has been raised, not to make us feel better – not to give us a tidy ending to his strange and disturbing story – but to trample down death under his feet and give us a new life that will be stronger than anything death can throw at us.
And the ending of Mark’s gospel suggests that if we are still confused, still bewildered, still trying to figure things out – then we should go right back to the beginning and read it again. It’s all there – all the clues, all the keys to understanding who Jesus is, and why – two thousand years later – people still want to know him, and to love him and to serve him. It’s all there – but it may take a life time to figure it out and Jesus says, “Don’t worry if you don’t have it all worked out – just follow me. Don’t think about it too much – just come on with me to Galilee and start living the resurrection life. Don’t tie your brain up in knots – just follow me and I will lead you into a future filled with the love and the power of God.”
Jesus has left the empty tomb behind. We will not find him there this morning – and after we celebrate his resurrection and sing our songs and break bread together – we are going to have to leave all this behind and get moving ourselves.
It’s not what we had in mind. I know we are all looking forward to brunch – to a nice Mimosa – a piece of Easter ham or some of the kids’ chocolate – and goodness knows I’m looking forward to a nap. But this year, Mark just won’t let us pack Easter up in a box and put it away.
This year, Mark says: Get moving. Jesus is going ahead of you and the glorious Good News is that because Jesus is alive, so you are alive – and alive in a way that means you never have to be afraid of death again. Get moving – the fear and the uncertainty and the apprehension will always be with you, but they don’t have to stop you. Get moving – the story is not over – the story is being written right at this very moment – you are part of it – it is being written for you and with you and in you.
On this day, God has acted – God has proclaimed that death no longer has dominion over us, that we mortal, finite, fallible, feckless human beings are reborn into the same resurrection life that explodes out of the tomb, leaving it gaping empty behind. We are alive because Christ is alive – the tomb cannot hold him, and it cannot hold us. The story is calling us forward – on this day, God has acted – the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. The story is calling us forward – terror, amazement, doubt and all. This is God’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.
The Rev. Clare Fischer-Davies
St. Martin's Episcopal Church
March 23, 2008
The Scandal of the Resurrection
Mary said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him "Rabbi!"
There are moments in our human lives that are so powerful, so significant, so filled with meaning that when they happen, the earth seems literally to shift on its axis. We see everything differently and we know, at that moment, that nothing will ever be the same again.
I had such a moment back in August, when the surgeon doing Gerry's biopsy came out to find me in the waiting room. I knew, before he spoke, that the news was bad - his face was tense, and drawn and sad - and before the words could come out of his mouth, I knew that our lives had changed forever. It was as if my whole existence had narrowed to that one tiny moment in time, the fraction of a second before Dr. Shaberg opened his mouth.
Mary has such a moment there by the empty tomb, when the man she believes to be the gardener turns to her and calls her by name. In that heart-stopping moment of recognition, the world as she knows it shatters, and something unknown and unimaginable is revealed to her. Christ is risen, and nothing will ever be the same again.
Mary comes to the garden steeped in grief. She has waited through the Sabbath, waited for this daybreak, waited for the sunrise so that she can go to the tomb and care for Jesus' dead and battered body. The hours she stood at the foot of the cross were dreadful, tragic - but there is nothing new, nothing earth-shattering in the abuse of power or in the suffering of an innocent man. Mary had seen all that before, and though her grief is terrible, she still stands on familiar ground - the ground of mourning and the rituals of death.
The empty tomb itself tells her nothing. It's just one more wound driven into her already broken heart. All she wants is to find her teacher's body: "Tell me where you've put him, and I'll take care of him." All she wants is to anoint the corpse with herbs and ointment, to wrap it in fresh linen cloth and do for Jesus these last, simple acts of love and devotion.
But the man she thinks is the gardener turns to her and calls her by name, and in that single, tiny fraction of a second - everything changes; everything changes forever.
I imagine that she reaches out to embrace him - that she flings her arms out toward him in utter joy, wanting to hold him, to touch him, to make sure he isn't a figment of her despairing imagination. Jesus is back! It was all some kind of grisly joke, or maybe a terrible dream - it doesn't matter. Jesus is given back to her, to all of them - and now they can go back to the way things had been before - everything will stay the same.
"Do not hold on to me."
No - nothing will ever be the same again. This moment in Scripture is beloved by artists, and in the paintings, Jesus is himself - he is recognizable - and yet, he is not himself. There is a marked distance between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. She cannot even touch him, much less embrace him. In many of the paintings, there is a clear sense of movement in both their bodies: Jesus is moving toward God, and Mary is falling backwards, thrown off balance by the encounter. Jesus lives - but Jesus is not the same.
And Mary is not the same either. Mary cannot hold him. Whatever the resurrection reality, it is radically different from her earthly reality. The resurrection is not resuscitation; Jesus isn't raised from the dead in order to go back to the life he led before the crucifixion. He is raised for something entirely new. And in that moment of recognition - as Jesus is both revealed to her and taken away from her - Mary becomes a participant in that new reality.
It is a tiny, specific, exquisitely particular moment in time - as tiny, specific and exquisitely particular as the moment Mary of Nazareth says to Gabriel - "Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word."
Post-Enlightenment thinking, and especially 20th century progressive biblical studies and theology, have painted both the Incarnation and the Resurrection in pretty broad brush strokes. Scholars and theologians have tended to do away with that scandalous particularity that so challenges the faith of modern Christians. The resurrection cannot possibly be true, we tell ourselves. There cannot possibly be any other reality. The resurrection is really just a story told to explain how the first Christians continued to remember and experience Jesus in their hearts. We should understand the resurrection in as generous and inclusive a way as possible - there cannot be any scandalous particularity.
Ah - but our Jewish heritage shows us that God has always been scandalously particular. God's story, and our story as God's people, has always been told through particular, specific human lives and particular, specific human events. Abraham receives a call to leave his home and go to an unknown land; barren Sara is told she will bear a son; Moses sees a bush burning, and turns aside to take a closer look; David, out of all Jesse's handsome sons, is anointed king. And Mary, a simple village girl with nothing special to commend her, becomes the theo-tokos - the God-bearer - the one in whom the Word becomes flesh in order to dwell among us.
It's pretty wild stuff. And of course it strains credulity and makes us uncomfortable - it seems like some unattractive remnant of a primitive past we'd rather forget, an anachronism in a world where we can split the atom, decode DNA and probe the farthest corners of the universe. How can we speak of incarnation and resurrection except to say - our ancestors may have needed to believe these stories, but we don't have to anymore. We know too much - we're too sophisticated - we understand how the world works.
Believe me, I'm not mocking that way of thinking. I think that way myself six days out of seven. I have trouble believing the scandalous particularity of our Christian story, the way God's saving purpose finally narrows to the dimension of a cross, to the height of a man, and the breadth of his outstretched arms. I have trouble believing that in the tiny space of a man's last breath, God's work for us is accomplished.
But maybe, when I focus on the limits of my belief, I am focusing on the wrong thing. We are not gathered here this morning, we are not gathered in this beautiful, aromatic place, we are not singing these glorious hymns because of what we might or might not believe. We are here because of what God has done, because of what God can do, and because of what we hope God will do.
We like to think we are too sophisticated, too full of scientific knowledge and understanding to believe in the resurrection as anything other than a metaphor. We like to think that we are light-years beyond the naiveté of the first disciples. But really, the first disciples didn't believe it either. Mary's eyewitness account is greeted with skepticism - she's just a woman, not even allowed to bear witness in a courtroom - she must be hysterical, mad with grief. First-century non-Christian authors agreed that Jesus' disciples must have stolen the body for their own purposes, nothing else was possible. We may know a little more science than they did, but Roman culture was every bit as cynical, materialistic, narcissistic, and nihilistic as our own. Resurrection sounded just as ridiculous to them as it does to us. Perhaps we're not as highly evolved as we think.
John's Gospel continues with the story of Jesus appearing to the disciples as they are huddled in a secret room at the end of Easter Day. We'll hear this story next week, when the church is much emptier, and the lilies have begun to wilt, and the brass and timpani have gone home. Thomas says he absolutely refuses to believe that Christ is risen, and he states his lack of belief as a challenge - "I'm going to have to stick my hands in his wounds to believe it."
Well, look at just how scandalously particular the story becomes. Jesus says - "here. Put your hand here - don't just look at what the nails did - touch the wounds yourself." And John goes on to say, "Blessed are you who have not seen, and yet believe."
I do not want God's power to be limited by the limits of my own knowledge. I do not want God's sovereignty to be limited by the limits of my own belief. I do not want God's saving work to be dependent on what I do or do not think is possible. And above all, I do not want the scandal of particularity to be diminished so that I can be more comfortable.
At the women's retreat a couple of weeks ago, I realized - as we shared our various stories of faith and doubt and experiences of God - that my faith is most tangible to me when I'm fighting it. God is most real to me when I'm wrestling, and questioning, and doubting and denying. And God is most real to me in tiny, specific, particular moments when I get glimpse - just a glimpse of who God is, and what God has done.
As Gerry and I have continued to live in that new reality that follows a cancer diagnosis, we've learned to experience those tiny, specific, particular moments as revelations of grace and holiness. God has been present to us in a new way, as a source of healing and wholeness that goes far beyond whether or not a disease is "cured". We have, ever so tentatively and with plenty of backsliding and bad days, begun to believe that we are living in the power of the resurrection.
God has created a new reality - in which death has no dominion, where death is swallowed up in victory so that we know longer have to be held captive by the fear of death. I want to live in that new reality, whether or not on any given day I can believe that it's true. I do not want to limit that new reality by the limits of my own imagination, my own knowledge, my own faith.
"Jesus Christ is risen today. Alleluia," we have sung this morning. Christ is risen, the Lord is risen, indeed. Jesus is the subject of the sentence, not us. God is the author of our salvation, not us. The resurrection is a scandalous particularity, an offense against common sense, scientific possibility and human reason. Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory in Jesus Christ our risen Lord.