Did you catch that ending to Mark’s story of the Resurrection? 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. That’s it?! They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid? No Jesus sightings? No encounters in the garden or on the road or in the upper room?
Mark’s telling of the story, someone has said, is “more unsettling than satisfying…more challenging than cheerful, more muted than a satisfying major chord.” (Robert E. Durham, Journal for Preachers, Easter 2018, p. 26) From the earliest days, the Christian community felt the need to edit Mark’s account, to add endings, some more strange than others. “Never put a period where God has placed a comma,” we say in the UCC, but sometimes it’s better to let God be the one to write the endings than to wander into territory about handling snakes and drinking poison, which some of the later endings to Mark do.
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. We English readers don’t even get the further abruptness of the Greek, which ends with a preposition–gar–”for”–”they were afraid for.” We are left with those strange Easter words ringing in our ears–”Terror,” “amazement,” “afraid.”
As we’ve seen all throughout Lent in our reading of Mark’s gospel, Mark seems to be in a hurry– “immediately” is his favorite word–and it’s as though he’s scribbling as fast as he can to get it all down before the knock on the door, the hand on the shoulder, the sword point in the ribs. “Mark is the gospel of faith overcoming fear,” one commentator writes. “What they fear throughout [he says] is trusting God as Jesus does, because it feels like losing–losing wealth, losing self, losing status, losing political and religious power, and above all, losing life in the call of Jesus to follow his way of the cross.” [Michael Coffey, JP, op cit., p. 7] Trusting God as Jesus does feels like losing. And who wants to be a loser?
Terror. Amazement. Fear. The events of the week so raw, the rolled away stone and empty tomb and the message of the young man in white. Not so unlike what the students at Stoneman Douglas High School have been through these past weeks–the terror of those 6 min. and 20 sec., the amazement of igniting a world-wide movement of March for Our Lives, the ongoing threats and targeting…. Indeed, it’s the terror and fear that have come to characterize our day and age. The cross of violence and oppression, of intimidation and targeting still looms as starkly as ever over our landscape.
We cannot afford to skip over Good Friday and move into “easy rejoicing and shallow praise,” as one preacher says [Coffey] . The forces that put Jesus on the cross are still at work and growing in our time and we must name them, as one writer begins the list–”energized white supremacy and racism, immigrant shaming and refuge-blaming, unapologetic moves to shift wealth further upward, actions to strip health care from those who need it most, blatant and constant lying without shame from those in power, growing acceptance of uncivil discourse, partisan divides growing further entrenched, malignant narcissism and its dangerous foreign policy implications, permanent structural economic changes that leave many behind, festering nationalism that overrides baptismal identity and care for the other,” and, I would add, environmental degradation.” You may have others to add. Terror, fear, hopelessness.
“In many ways,” one writer observes, “American Christianity in the 21st century has not been well-formed for a time such as this. We have been overly comforted, cheaply graced, syncretized [or merged] with nationalism, and excused from taking up the cross and facing death.” [Coffey] That describes, of course, white, affluent Christianity. African American and immigrant churches are much better prepared and practiced.
“Many of us have moved into a more settled despair,” one preacher admits, “and sit on the verge of hopelessness.” [Coffey, op cit.] What both those on the left and the right share is doubt and even cynicism that the political process is able to make any meaningful change for the better. It is the poets, the musicians, the artists, the gospel-writers and tellers, and the young who are much more open to new visions, to amazement, to radical trust, to envisioning a world that is worth hoping for and working for. They understand the power of silence–did you see/hear Emma Gonzales’ courageous 6 min. 20 sec. of silence on the National Mall in last week’s March for Our Lives? Artists and musicians understand the power of negative space, of the rest between notes. Young people understand the power of “and”–this is true AND this is true, not just my way or the highway. Perhaps at some point, those in our political process will learn those lessons as well.
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.
At the beginning of Lent back in February, I noted that it was yet another “last” in my time here as pastor of Second Congregational Church. My last season of Lent, my last Maundy Thursday service, and here, now, my last Easter sermon. I talked a bit in that early Lenten sermon about how I was feeling about that–my excitement, my worries, my regrets. That afternoon, I received an e-mail from a church member, thanking me for the sermon, but also hoping that I would stay open to the “firsts”–to the new things, the new opportunities that would unfold as I move into retirement–and to the “stills”–the things that I still am, still love, still want to do or be. “Well, that’s an Easter sermon,” I said to myself. And you know, I have gone back to find that e-mail, searched through my church e-mail, our home e-mail, through my “sent” folders, because I’m pretty sure I replied to that e-mail, even searched my deleted files, and I can find no trace of that original e-mail.
But it did come to me, that Easter sermon–last, first, still…. The women went to the tomb that early morning assuming they had seen Jesus for the last time, but God’s power has the ability to blast through our assumptions. “He has been raised; he is not here,” the young man in the white robe said, the teenager with the shaved head and the tattoos said, the women running from the tomb finally said. “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.” The last time you saw him was on the cross, pinned there by powers and principalities, but that is not the last time you will see him. The first time you see him again he will be different–”I greet you from the other side of sorrow and despair,” Leonard Cohen wrote, “with a love so vast and shattered it will reach you everywhere.” Last…first…still. “I am still with you.”
The radical truth of the resurrection is that God is able to bring new life out of death, to empty the dank tombs of war and greed and nationalism and hatred, to descend into our deepest hells and even there let Love pierce and permeate the darkness. 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. Somebody–one of them–must have said something, must have told somebody, because we are here this morning hearing their story. And we have to do more than just hear it. We must keep wrestling with what the women saw, wrestling with the questions that still plague us, wrestling with our own fears and doubts, practicing resurrection hope and neighborliness until we too find ourselves and our communities resurrected. We must say something.
This is not the last time we will struggle with it–there are hells to be descended into, hells of loss, of pain, of disappointment and betrayal; but the first time we experience new life again, the first time we laugh or smile after a deep loss, the first time we realize that we no longer need to be bearing that burden, the first time we see enemies standing together, raising their clasped hands in reconciliation, the first time we see that brave yellow crocus reaching up from cold soil after a long and bitter winter, the first time we experience that glimpse of grace, that stirring of new life, we will be amazed, full of wonder. For God is still with us, in our sorrow and our joy, in our working and our retiring, in life, in death, in life that comes forth from death. God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God!
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark