Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
What happens now?
The tomb is empty…but the women flee in terror and amazement…and tell no one, because they are afraid…
Maybe you’ve been there…
Shocked…staring…and unable to find words…incapable of making sense of the tumult of emotions inside you…is it fear? or relief? Is it joy, that now…finally…things will be different, or is it sorrow…that now…nothing will ever be the same?
You’ve had those moments, surely, when reality cracks the facade of your projected world and you stand face to face with…yourself…and God…usually in the midst of a crisis…in fear and amazement…wondering what’s next?
Easter is different—again—this year. We’re not quite out of the woods…but there is hope on the horizon…there’s a tricky path forward…to a new future that God is holding out for us…but with all that has transpired since Easter 2019…the last time we celebrated the resurrection here in this space…with all that we now know, all the things we have seen…the path we have walked…the cries for justice we’ve heard…the inequalities laid bare…the confusion…the anger…all that we can no longer look away from…Maybe this year, we understand better how those women felt…as we stand in fear and amazement…and continue to ask…what’s next?
The Gospel according to Mark is the right gospel for this moment, because it is not an ivory-towered history written by tweedy academics with the leisure to research and reflect…nor is it a writerly account filled with lyrical prose inviting deep sighs, and knowing nods of appreciation from the literati. No, Mark is a breathless account written in the midst of one of the greatest crises Judaism ever faced. It is a cry from the heart…and it is a call to action.
The years between Jesus’ death and the time Mark creates his account were tense but largely peaceful in Palestine…but in the year 66 CE a violent rebellion broke out across the Judean countryside. It raged for the next four years…until Jerusalem was laid siege for seven solid months…The walls finally breached…then destroyed…the Temple…reduced to rubble…The non-Roman population was killed, exiled, or enslaved.
This crisis—that utterly transformed Judaism and nurtured a new Jewish sect of Christ followers—is the backdrop to Mark…remember, there were no other Gospels…Matthew, Luke, and John were written after the fall of the Temple, looking back on the crisis…a few of Paul’s letters were floating around…and a whole wealth of stories, gossip, legends, and folklore circulated…(not so dissimilar to now, maybe…)…And Mark is in the thick of it…
And the pressing question he must address is: how do you preach Good News and Resurrection to a world that is tearing itself apart? How do you proclaim the triumph of God’s love, and compassion, and faithfulness in a world where people are systemically oppressed…where the contagion of violence that always thrums beneath the surface, has erupted into open conflict…where “our way of life” (however that is defined) hangs in the balance… Mark is not really all that concerned with doctrine…he is primarily concerned with: How do you give people hope, when all around reeks of hopelessness? How do you help people find purpose, when only glimmers of light shine through the chaotic shadows of uncertainty?
Mark does it by ending his gospel with two women trembling in fear and amazement and telling no one.
But that’s just the end of the reading, not the end of the story, right? They go to Galilee and they see him…in the upper room…and on the road…and then he ascends…and then there’s Pentecost, and the early church, and…that’s not the end…is it?
For Mark it is. In the oldest manuscripts, Mark’s gospel ends here.
Jesus dies on the cross. Even that is not the ending that anyone hoped for (maybe Rome)…There’s no triumphal victory, no restored kingdom of David…but neither is there tragic failure and defeat…because there’s this scene at the tomb.
And a young man dressed in white (is it the same young man in the white cloth who ran off naked from the crucifixion?…is it an angel? Is it really Jesus and they simply don’t recognize him? The way Mary doesn’t recognize him in John’s account?) We don’t know. Mark says’ there’s an empty tomb. A young man in white. A angelic reassurance, “Don’t be afraid.” A confirmation, “He has been raised. He is not here.” And a command, “Go tell the disciples (and Peter) that he is going ahead of you to Galilee, there you will see him, just as he told you.” And they flee “for terror and amazement had seized them…and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
Now, try to imagine…that this is all you have to go on…all that other stuff… the meeting on the road and the meal at the inn (Luke 24), the fish on the beach (John 21), the “put your finger in my side”(John 20), the command to “go make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28), the ascension, the handling snakes (Mark 16—look it up), the stories of the apostles in Acts…you know none of it. You’re just here…having heard this whole story…outside the tomb…amazed and afraid…with this resounding question…”what’s next?”
One scholar puts it this way, “”Here at the end of the story, we find ourselves in exactly the same position [as the women and…] Whether or not we actually ‘see’ Jesus again depends [on…] whether we renew [our] commitment to the journey,”… On whether or not we are willing to undergo a similar transformation […] “[Like the women], we do not entirely understand what “resurrection’ means, but if we have understood the story, we should be “holding fast” to what we do know: that Jesus still goes before us, summoning us to the way of the cross,” to the way of love. Mark ends “not [in] tragedy, [nor in] victory, but an unending challenge to follow anew.” [Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 401]
What’s next? What happens now? Those aren’t the right questions…the question we really have to answer is…”We we flee? or will we follow?” God has acted. The tomb is empty. Christ is risen! Jesus goes before us…God will continue to lead us, for Easter to be real, for us to really see the resurrection…we must follow.