Easter, April 12, 2009
Mark 16: 1-8
“Speaking of Resurrection”
These women—Mary, Mary, and Salome—have had a difficult week. They likely came into Jerusalem with Jesus and his other followers the previous Sunday. They saw him knock over the tables in the temple. They shared a disconcerting meal with him in the upper room when he said to them, “This is my body, this is my blood.”
And then they watched as that body was hung on a cross. As that blood came pouring out of the spear wound on his side. The two Marys continued to watch as the body was removed from the cross, wrapped in a linen shroud, carried to an empty tomb, and sealed inside.
As our story for this morning begins—the Easter story from the gospel of Mark—the women are continuing their service to Jesus.
The text says: When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”
These are women who have dealt with death before. They know what needs to be done, and they do it. They focus themselves on the concrete tasks they need to perform—even thinking about the logistics of gaining entrance into the tomb.
When my Grandpa died just before Christmas, Grandma sent my mom to the mall with specific instructions about which clothes to buy. Grandpa had to be buried in new blue jeans and a white button-up shirt with wine-colored pin stripes.
When my father-in-law died, I immersed myself in packing up the family and getting to South Dakota. Once there I gathered up all of my father-in-law’s magazines and started making phone calls to cancel the subscriptions. I called the number for the Pilot’s Association magazine. “Was it an airplane accident?” they asked. Well, no, it wasn’t, but the concreteness of the question was oddly comforting. I was obviously not the first person to ever call and cancel a subscription.
And Jesus was not the first person that Mary or Mary or Salome had watched die.
Death is heartbreaking. It is terrible and sad and painful. But it is not surprising. Yes, sometimes the timing and the circumstances are surprising. But the fact of death itself is not surprising. We know death. We do not want to deal with it, but we know how to deal with it when we have to.
These women, headed to Jesus’ tomb at first light, are grieving, but they are not disoriented. They are focused on all of the necessary tasks that come along with death. They have the spices. They know the way to the tomb. They are working out the bit about how to move the stone.
“But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away.”
Now this is the point at which I would have stopped and had a little conference with Mary and Salome. There are a few reasons why the stone might be gone, and some of those reasons involve the plotting of the people who killed Jesus and would be happy to kill any of his followers as well.
But these women are so focused on their task that the open mouth of the cave does not give them pause. They walk right in. They do not stop their intended course of action until they see a young man in a white robe sitting on the right side of the tomb.
Now we do not know if this “young man” is supposed to be an angel. But he opens with the words that we have heard from other angels: “Do not be alarmed.”
Easy for him to say. He was, no doubt, expecting the women. No reason to hang around the empty tomb unless he thought someone might be coming.
But these women were not expecting him. They were expecting the stone to be heavy. They were expecting the tomb to be dark and putrid. They were expecting a blood-stained shroud and a decaying body. They were not expecting such openness! Such light!
“Don’t be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.”
These women could deal with Jesus’ death. Yes, they loved him. Yes, they hoped that he would, somehow, save them. They may have even believed that he was the messiah. But in the end, they were ready for his death. Expecting it, really.
The preacher Fred Craddock calls it “putting cushions on the floor.” We have a way of hoping for the best, but forcing ourselves to, at some level, expect the worst. It’s how we try to guard against disappointment.
“Well, the publisher wants to see the manuscript, but they probably won’t want to publish it.”
“Our vacation will be fun, sure, but traveling is pretty exhausting and the weather is supposed to be bad next week.”
“Yeah, the report came back benign, but still, cancer runs in my family. I’ll probably get it sooner or later.”
“This Jesus guy seems . . . different. Seems like he could be the one. But, you know, most of these messiah types just end up dead one way or another.”
And the young man in white says: “Don’t be alarmed You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.”
This is what the women are not expecting. As remarkable as the Jesus story is, they could follow along with it until this. They could handle Jesus multiplying food, casting out demons, breaking social taboos, healing the sick, talking like a crazy man, even his gruesome execution.
But this is the one thing that jolts them off course. This is the one bit of news that is beyond anything they expected, anything they hoped, anything they can grasp.
“He is risen!”
What does it even mean? They are familiar with death. Resurrection is a new and strange reality.
“He is not here.”
Suddenly the embalming spices they have brought are useless. The role they intended to play in closing out this Jesus drama is gone. They have been written out of the script. If there is no body, there is nothing for them to do.
“But,” says the young man in white, “Go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ “
This is not the role the women wanted to play. Throughout Jesus’ ministry the women have been following Jesus; providing food for Jesus and his followers; giving him money for his travels; anointing him; ministering to him in his hour of need.
They are not prepared to go. They are not prepared to tell. This is beyond the scope of what they have agreed to do.
And besides, where do they go? The disciples are in some hideout, praying the authorities don’t find them. Peter—who, interestingly is listed as separate from “the disciples”–may or may not be with the rest of them. Go where?
And more importantly, tell what? What could they possibly say? “He’s not in the tomb. You’ll see him later.” What kind of message is that? The women do not understand what has happened. How can they “go and tell”?
These women, so calm and purposeful in the face of death, are completely at a loss in the face of new life.
So, “trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”
And that’s how Mark ends his Gospel—his story of Good News. Your Bible probably has more tacked on. A few resurrection appearances from Jesus. A commissioning with that bit about handling snakes and drinking poison. But even a careful reading of the English translation will reveal that this is an added ending. And hopefully your footnotes tell you that the earliest, most reliable manuscripts of Mark end at verse 8.
We tidy up the grammar a bit in English. The Greek ending is even more abrupt: They said nothing to anyone; they were afraid for . . .
Stage lights down. Drama over.
And then the audience begins talking. Because, of course, the presence of the story belies the story’s end. If the women really had said nothing to anyone, then we would not be hearing the story now. Clearly at some point somebody said something to someone.
Who broke the silence? What did she say? And to whom?
These are interesting questions, and answering them could prove a fun imaginative exercise.
But the more faithful questions are: How will I break the silence? What will I say? And to whom?
Like the women at the empty tomb, we are called to go and tell.
Go where? Go to those who have not seen what you have seen.
Storyteller and teacher Richard Swanson, who has performed the entire Gospel of Mark, says that the Easter task “is to tell stories about resurrection in a world where everyone dies.”
Yes, we can tell THE resurrection story. There are times for that. And we can also tell other stories of the life that God breathes into the world. Stories of hate overcome by love; violence overcome by peace; death overcome by resurrection life.
We can, we should, tell the stories of how we experience God’s everlasting life at work in the world today.
Tell the stories in our speech. Tell the stories in our writing. Tell the stories simply by living as if the God of love and peace and life has the ultimate power in this world.
We do not know when the women finally told the resurrection story. We don’t know who they told or how they told it. But because of these women, because of their willingness to take on an unexpected role; because of their willingness to speak through their bewilderment, we can all share this morning in their proclamation: Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed!
*I invite you to use this time of silence to reflect on the resurrection stories that you have to tell. There are some slips of paper and pencils available if you would like to write down some thoughts.