Sunday, April 21, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Am I Mary?"

Mark 16:1-8

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they could go and anoint Jesus’ dead body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they came to the tomb. 3 They were saying to each other, “Who’s going to roll the stone away from the entrance for us?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away. (And it was a very large stone!) 5 Going into the tomb, they saw a young man in a white robe seated on the right side; and they were startled. 6 But he said to them, “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.[a] He has been raised. He isn’t here. Look, here’s the place where they laid him. 7 Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.” 8 Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. (CEB)

Reactions to the Resurrection: Our Biblical Alter Egos, Week One

Arlington Street stretches through the heart of Boston, packed with shops and businesses, and often packed with people.  But it also lies just three or so blocks from the site where two young brothers detonated a pair of homemade bombs filled with shrapnel—ball bearings and nails—that killed three people and injured over 175 more at the finish of the famed Boston marathon.

Where Arlington intersects with Boylston Street, Boston police would set up a barricade in the wake of the Monday bombings.  The following morning, on Tuesday, when people began to return to the scene, a woman placed a bouquet of flowers underneath the Wood & Wire sign advertising the business that had provided the barricade.

By noon on Tuesday, a dozen more bouquets had joined this first one.  Added to it were Boston t-shirts, lashed to the barricade with plastic ties.  Added to those were cards written to the three dead, including an eight-year-old child.

Out of a place once occupied by the deafening silence that follows an explosion, new voices were springing up, spreading out like kudzu across a barren crime scene.

And how fitting a tribute to the circumstances of the Resurrection, and the discovery of the empty tomb.  A barren remnant of a crime—the wrongful execution of Jesus Christ—remains, silent, for though we wished it otherwise in Palm Sunday, stones do not speak.  The stone that guards the entrance to the tomb is as silent as the dead it protects.

Until Easter.

Until that day when that stone is rolled aside, the tomb is discovered empty, and the silence of the world is broken.  Fanning out across the world, the disciples and Paul and others begin the long, laborious process of building this wayward little Jesus Movement into the Christos Ekklesia—the Christian Church.

Except that isn’t quite what happens here, in Mark’s telling of the Easter saga.  Now, my intent behind this new sermon series was to recall that traditionally, the church held Easter to be not just a day, but a season—a 50-day long season that culminates in the story of Pentecost, of the coming of the Holy Spirit as depicted in Acts 2.  And so for the remainder of the season of Easter, we will be keeping the story of Easter alive by looking at how different followers of Jesus reacted to the news on the day of the Resurrection, and we begin today with the story of Mary Magdalene and her reaction to the discovery of the empty tomb, as told by Mark.

All four of the Gospel writers are unanimous—Mary Magdalene discovers the empty tomb.  John depicts her as flying solo, returning to the tomb alone, but Mark, Luke, and Matthew have her as a part of a group of other female disciples of Jesus.  I could have just as easily, I suppose, entitled this sermon, “Am I Salome?” but I think more of us know who Mary is.

In any case, we are left with what has to be the most unsatisfying of all the Easter stories, for two reasons: one, you’ll notice that there are no appearances by the Risen Christ; there is only the empty tomb.  And second, the story of the empty tomb ends not in testimony, of the sharing of the discovery like in all the other Gospels, but in flight from the empty tomb and a fear-induced silence over everything that has just taken place.

And we should feel permission to be unsatisfied with this ending, because the editors of the New Testament were themselves.  The Gospel of Mark has two different endings which follow verse 8, but they were not a part of the earliest manuscripts—Eusebius, the fourth-century Christian and church historian, attested that the most accurate copies of Mark’s Gospel simply ended here, at verse 8.  In other words, verses 9-20 were likely shanghaied onto Mark’s Gospel later on.

I’m not saying any of this to impugn Scripture—it is, was, and will always be the inspired Word of God.  But if I’m honest with you…if I had been there, wherever there is, when the canon was closed, I would have probably asked for Mark to be closed at verse 8 as well.

And it would not just be for the sake of historical authenticity, it would be also to keep true to the spirit of Mark’s Gospel.  One of my New Testament professors in seminary was an expert on Mark’s Gospel, and she always referred to it as “a Passion story with an extended introduction.”  When you consider that Mark is 16 chapters long, and the theme of Jesus’ death largely dominates the Gospel from chapter 8 onwards, fully half of this story revolves around it.

And so when Mark finally does arrive at the empty tomb, the work of God has already been done, as evinced by the words of the angel who is seated where Jesus once lay—“He is not here; He has been raised!”

And that’s it.  Mark’s version of the empty tomb is, in a Zen-like way, absolutely perfect.  This is an incredible story—as New Testament scholar Douglas Hare put it, “We must remember that the story was no more believable in the first century than in our own day.  It must have seemed as ridiculous as some of the tall tales that are presented as “news” in or supermarket tabloids.”

But unlike the stories of, I don’t know, some B-list celebrity growing a second head or whatever, there is no sensationalism.  Unlike the tabloid purveyors of today, Mark does not gild the lily.  Instead, to take from Hare again, “The story is told in a simple, restrained fashion, without any defensive attempt to make it less incredible than it is.”

It is so incredible, in fact, that at least initially, it cannot be told.  The empty tomb is so shocking, so fear-inducing, that there are literally no words for the women who have discovered it, even when the words are spoon-fed to them by an angel.  That is how incredible this is.

That is how incredible, how against-the-grain, how world-turning-upside-down, how life-changing, how mind-boggling, how truly unbelievable the power of God really is.

And because we took a bit of that power from God way back in the Garden of Eden—when Adam and Eve took from God the knowledge of good and evil—we can do the same thing to ourselves—do things so incredible that the only thing they can inspire from us is wordlessness.

Sometimes those things are good.  But I fear that more often than not, those things that inspire such silence are evil.  Things like 9/11.  Things like the assassinations in the 1960s of John and Robert Kennedy and of Martin Luther King, Jr.  And things like the Boston Marathon bombings.

What happened this week in Boston is something that I have no doubt we will also remember in vivid detail—where we were when we heard the news, how we followed the manhunt, and the reactions of all our leaders to the news that the younger brother was captured alive.  In the vague recesses of our memories, the details of any one day, any one week, or even any one month may escape us, as they have become victims to the cutting room floor by the ruthless editor that exists in our own mind that decides what to keep in our long-term memories and what to discard.

And based on the initial silence of Mary—and the other Mary, and Salome—we might well wonder if Jesus Christ would indeed become forgotten to all but the historians, a footnote in Israel’s struggle for liberation, another in a long line of claimants the mantle of the Messiah.

But because we know their story—simple, incredible, ungilded though it is—we know that at some point, they must’ve broken their silence and shared with the world what they saw and felt.

And it was so this week in Boston.  After the bombings, you could see the silence in the streets.  Arlington, Boylston, and much of the city center was barricaded off.  Deserted.  Empty.  Silent.

But like the women who followed Jesus, we returned.  They returned to the empty tomb bearing spices to honor the fallen Christ.  And we brought bouquets of flowers, t-shirts, cards, poetry, anything we could offer, to honor the fallen of yet another violent episode of American history.

Like Mary, our initial reaction was one of stunned, terrified, dreadful silence.

But time passed.  The story got told.  And, like kudzu, the reactions to the story grew and grew.

The story of the Resurrection grew into a church.  And the story of Boston has grown into things like the crowdsourcing of over $1 million to pay for the victims’ medical expenses.  It has grown into things like Big Papi, David Ortiz, shouting to the heavens, “This is OUR FUCKING CITY” and the FCC doesn’t even object.  And it will continue to grow as the story continues to be told.

Am I Mary?  If I were to discover the empty tomb, would I stay silent, and for how long?

Perhaps the best way to answer that question would be to look at yourself over the past week.  When I heard about Boston, was I shocked and stunned into silence?  For how long?  When did I start talking about it?  And most importantly, when did I start regenerating my faith in God and in one another by seeing the reactions of others to the same horrors I have just seen?  Because if the bombings were a Crucifixion, within our reactions lies a Resurrection.  

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 21, 2013

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