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Sunday, April 1, 2018
Scripture: I Corinthians 15:1-11 & Mark 16:1-8
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
One Sunday before Easter, a Church School teacher asked her class about the meaning of Easter.
One pupil said: “Easter is when all the family gets together and they have a big turkey and sing about the pilgrims and all that.” The teacher said, “No, that’s not it.”
Then a second pupil responded: “I know what Easter is! Easter is when you get this pine tree and cover it with decorations and exchange gifts and sing lots of songs.” Again, the teacher had to say, “That’s not it.”
Then came the third pupil. He began: “Easter is when Jesus was killed, and put in a tomb, and left for three days.” “He knows! He knows!” the teacher said to herself, ecstatically. But then the boy went on, “Then everybody gathers at the tomb and waits to see if Jesus comes out, and if He sees His shadow….”
Today is the first time since 1956 that Easter Sunday and April Fools’ Day overlap, so of course it’s only fitting to start the sermon off with a little humor today. I’ll get another chance in 2029, so I’ve got 11 years to come up with a better joke than that one!
Easter is no laughing matter, although I truly believe that Easter is something that brings a smile to God’s face every year. Actually, I just encountered a really interesting tradition that started early on in the Greek Orthodox Church. On the day after Easter, clergy and laity would gather in the sanctuary to tell funny stories and jokes because they found it to be a fitting way to celebrate the big joke God had pulled on the devil with raising Jesus from the dead.
It’s the surprising nature of what happened to Jesus on that first Easter Sunday that left the gospel writers wrestling with how to tell the story. How do you put into words something that happened but that is, frankly, weird. Dead people stay dead. People 2,000 years ago knew that to be true. By that time many Jews believed that there would be a general resurrection of all Jews (or some even believed of everyone), but no one was expecting it to happen to one person.
Most believe that Mark’s gospel was the earliest to circulate, likely around 30 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Its account of the resurrection is the shortest and the most sparing in the details. Here we have three women gathering oils and spices to anoint the body of Jesus, which was common practice in that day and age. They waited until sundown on Saturday because they would not have shopped on the Sabbath. At the crack of dawn on Sunday, they approached the tomb, hoping someone would be there to roll away the stone so they can anoint the body. They were doing this so that the body would not smell as bad as it decayed in the coming months. Eventually, Jesus’ bones would have been removed from the tomb and been put in an ossuary – a bone box.
Except strange things were afoot. First, the stone was already rolled away. Second, Jesus was gone. Third, a young man dressed in white awaited them with strange news, “Do not be alarmed” – as though that was even possible! – “you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised, he is not here.” The young man showed them the linen wrappings that once held Jesus’ lifeless body and then sends them away with a charge, “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.”
Indeed Jesus had told them these things, but let’s be honest, if someone started predicting his own resurrection, you’d be skeptical too. Dead people stay dead. Mark reports that the women fled from the tomb with “terror and amazement.” Instead of doing what the young man told them to do, they kept this news to themselves, for they were afraid.
“For they were afraid.” With those words Mark’s gospel ended. What kind of ending is that? Wouldn’t it have been better to tell everyone that the women left the tomb, shared the news with the disciples, and the whole world was changed by this news that Jesus was raised from the dead? It certainly is more satisfying! Actually, early on people thought Mark didn’t finish his gospel, so they added a couple of endings, which give some triumph to the resurrection, but it is very clear that these are later additions.
Mark leaves the readers of his gospel in a place of failure and fear. But resurrection only grows out of failure.
The great American inventor, Thomas Edison, once famously said about how many tries it took him to invent the light bulb, “I have not failed 10,000 times. I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.” Now that’s optimism! Edison invented all sorts of things that were failures. He invented an automatic vote recorder, but election officials did not want it. He invented the talking doll, except this toy was too fragile and the voice scared children. He worked hard, but he failed more than he succeeded. Yet he kept going.
Or let’s consider Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest basketball player of all time. His teams won an NCAA championship and several NBA championships. He has won Olympic gold medals. He was league MVP seven times. But Jordan also lost over 300 games. He missed over 9,000 shots. 26 times he had the chance to make the game-winning shot but missed. Michael Jordan was amazing, but he also failed all the time. Yet he kept going.
Baseball just started back this week, and I’m absolutely nuts about that game. I love it. It’s such an interesting, technical sport. In this week’s Sports Illustrated, there is a fascinating article about the major changes going on in how Major League Baseball players are swinging. Over the past three seasons, major leagues have hit 3,023 fewer ground balls and 1,196 more home runs. Strikeouts are way up, but scoring has jumped a half run per game. Baseball is in the midst of a hitting revolution, but it is a revolution that has been launched by a bunch of hitting instructors who failed to make it in the majors. Among those who have taught this new way of hitting are a 71-year-old college dropout turned surfer, a former high school coach, a failed independent league player, a self-taught Internet baseball junkie, and a .204 hitter who was released from Class A ball after just two seasons and four home runs. Not one ever made the majors. Together these people were failures, but they kept going. Now they are revolutionizing baseball.
All of these people learned the art of failing their way forward. They encountered obstacles but pushed through them. Why would they do this? Because they all had faith that carrying on would eventually lead to success.
So, too, the women encountering the empty tomb on that first Easter Sunday. They fled the tomb with fear and amazement. They failed to share the news with others that Jesus was raised and awaiting them in Galilee. They were afraid. The story could have ended there, and if it had, you and I would not be here today. Rather, I hear that last sentence of Mark’s gospel as an unresolved chord progression. So, we’re going to pause the sermon for a moment for a little lesson in music theory. Our ears are trained to expect notes to behave in certain ways. One chord leads to the next, and what we want to hear is resolution to the progression. Composers know this, and many of them play with our expectations in their works, but I’ll let our church musicians tell you those stories. For now, let’s just try this out…
Mark’s gospel ends on that chord that makes us want to keep the song moving forward. In the words of Deborah Mumford, “It is left to God to resurrect us, to complete the story and resolve the chord.”
It is obvious that these three women in Mark’s gospel eventually got over their fear because the word of Jesus’ resurrection started spreading. They carried the story on. They kept writing the song, and so we see how God continues to work in and through the church as the Body of Christ in the world as a way of carrying on this plan of salvation into today and on for the future. This is no story of failure! It’s an ongoing story that you and I are blessed to be writing together, along with followers of Jesus all over the world. It’s as though Mark finished his gospel, turned to his audience, and said, “Now what are you going to do about it?” Sure, you might be afraid. Sure, this is hard. What are you going to do about it?
We can treat resurrection metaphorically, but I have to say that as Christians we believe it is a true, historical reality. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, “I want to remind you about the good news we proclaimed to you.” He goes on to tell us that if Christ was not raised from the dead, then none of this matters. Not one bit. But Christ has been raised! So, all of this matters and carries us on into how we live life now and how our hope is firmly fixed on God’s promises for eternity. This is not pie in the sky. This is not wishful thinking. This is real, true, and incredibly good news for the world! What looked like failure – the death of Jesus on the cross – became victory in his resurrection. Death could not stop him. He kept going!
The women who left the tomb fearing what was next overcame their fear and revolutionized the world. They kept going!
In the words of N. T. Wright, “And this is the point where believing in the resurrection of Jesus suddenly ceases to be a matter of inquiring about an odd event in the first century and becomes a matter of rediscovering hope in the twenty-first century. Hope is what you get when you suddenly realize that a different worldview is possible, a worldview in which the rich, the powerful, and the unscrupulous do not after all have the last word. The same worldview shift that is demanded by the resurrection of Jesus is the shift that will enable us to transform the world.”
The story of Easter continues with you, with me, with all who dare to follow the risen Christ in the world. It is what drives us to be agents of good and change in our communities. It’s not because we’re good, accepting people, although I hope we are that too. No, it’s because we have encountered the risen Christ and realize that not one thing can ever be the same for us. I love how Scott Hoezee puts this, “If the jaw-dropping reality of Jesus’ having been raised from the dead is not the animating center of all we do and advocate for and talk about as Christians, then what is? And if we’re not framing up our spiritual, social, political concerns inside the reality of Easter, then what is our central frame of reference when engaging the world?”
Through the risen Christ alone are we empowered to live, love, and bring light into this world. My friends, you are the resolution to that chord that moves the song along.
You are the good-news bringers to all who need hope.
You are the writers of the next chapters of this amazing story.
This is not a story of failure. This is a story of opportunity, where you get to play a part of writing its next chapters.
Before dawn that Easter morning, the women wonder who will roll away the stone so they can tend to Jesus’ body. They thought something was blocking their way to the task at hand, but God had already moved it. God has rolled away the stone. To remind us that these obstacles and failures will not stop us, I want to conclude the sermon with the responsive litany you have printed in your bulletin. It affirms that nothing will stop the resurrecting love of God at work in each of us.
One: When we are all despairing, when the world is full of grief, when we see no way ahead and hope has gone away:
All: Roll back the stone.
One: Although we fear change, although we are not ready, although we’d rather weep and run away:
All: Roll back the stone.
One: Because we’re coming with the women, because we hope where hope is vain, because you call us from the grave and show the way:
All: Roll back the stone.
 Wright, N.T. Surprised by Hope, p. 75.