Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Letting Loose the Alleluias: Mark 16:1-8
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But 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.’ 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.
There's a tricky thing about preaching. Well, something tricky for me about preaching. As we've gone through this whole season of Lent, I just assumed I'd preach on the Resurrection story from Mark. Mark is the primary Gospel for this lectionary year. And, I like Mark, am intrigued by the mystery and unexpectedness of the storytelling. That extends to the Resurrection story. I tend to like how open-ended it is and how, like the rest of the Gospel, the author of Mark resists giving too many neat and tidy answers to questions. And, then, the last two weeks happened. In the last two weeks, there's been flooding at my friends' homes in Kentucky and probably in some of our basements here in Maine. I've heard on the news that there is a terrible drought in California and the whole state could run out of water in the next 10 years. They've had to impose strict water restrictions for the first time in a very long time. Then, just a couple days ago, one hundred and forty seven college students were murdered in Kenya. I was still reeling from the news that a pilot killed 150 people who were in his care the week before. Also this week, I caught a cold and one of our cats had a health crisis. Then, someone broke into our church, busted our office door, and stole a projector out of my closet.
It has been a pretty messy week. I, for one, could probably use a neat and tidy story today. After a messy weak like this, I could use a straightforward win for the good guys. Too bad I picked Mark's resurrection story to preach on. Too bad this author doesn't seem too concerned with the kind of good news I'm pretty sure I need to hear today. He's not at all interested in telling a neat and tidy story. To be fair, there is very little about death and resurrection that is neat and tidy. Such a violent end necessarily leaves people with loose ends. And, trust me... there are a couple really big loose ends in our gospel story today.
You might be able to forgive those of us who've been around church for a while looking for a very uplifting and exciting Resurrection story. Maybe you're like me and when you think of the Resurrection, you remember stories about angels bringing good tiding of great joy... wait, that's Christmas. No, these angels talk to the women and tell them to tell Peter that Jesus has Risen. Then, Peter tells everybody else and they are less afraid. And, then I think of Jesus showing up at the place where the disciples were hiding out and letting Thomas feel his wounds to prove that it was really him. See, even the doubters get a little help. I also remember the story where he appears to some of his buddies while they walk down a country road and share a meal together. I also remember that Jesus gave his friends a job, so they wouldn't feel useless without him. He told them that they should make disciples of all nations. Then, he goes up to heaven. That seems like a pretty happy ending. Jesus is in heaven and his disciples are left with a job to do. That's the kind of ending I think I needed today.
Yeah, well, that's not the ending as Mark tells it. According to the author of Mark, the eleven remaining disciples have run off. Jesus was killed by the empire, with the blessing of his enemies in his own religious community. He doesn't even have a tomb of his own to be buried in. Thank goodness that Joseph is willing to give Jesus' family his. At least the women stayed with Jesus as he died. He didn't die completely forsaken. And, at least they were not so afraid that they left his body untended. Despite the danger and great mourning, they still felt called to ritually prepare his corpse for death. At least there's that. He did not die alone. Come on Mark. I need a little more joy than that after this week.
The next part of the story seems promising. There's a young man in white, a sign that he is probably an angel. The first thing he says is "Do not be alarmed." We could also translate this is "Do not be afraid." We know from Christmas that an angel saying "do not be afraid" is a good thing. It is a sign of reassurance. I totally need to be reassured, so I am now listening to this angel really hard and waiting for the good news that he is about to bring. And, I must admit, it's pretty great news. Jesus has been raised. He is no longer in the tomb. Wonderful! Alleluia. A resurrection! That is exactly what I need to hear. Then, the angel tells the women to go tell Peter and the others that Jesus will meet them back in Galilee, where his ministry got it's start. The angel tells the women that they will see Jesus again. What fantastic news! This is news that they never would have expected. So, what do they do? Tell everybody, right? Wrong. They freak and don't tell anybody. And, that's where this resurrection reading ends. We, the readers, never see Jesus again. And, the women, the first ones to hear that he is risen, are too afraid to tell someone else. No appearance of Jesus and freaked out followers too scared to tell anybody what they saw. That hardly sounds like a Resurrection to me.
I will say that it makes me feel a little better that I am apparently not the only one who has questions about this resurrection story. Apparently some ancient Christian scribes were a little unsatisfied with this ending. Scholars tell us that if we look at the oldest manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark, verse 8, which is the last verse in our reading today, is where the whole Gospel ends. But, starting sometime around the second century, the readers seem to get increasingly nervous about this ending. So, they added a little more. First, somebody added a part where the women stopped being scared and told Peter like they were supposed to. And, then another scribe, maybe having read the more peppy resurrection stories of Matthew, Luke, and John, figured it would be good to add a little more to the story. They thought it would probably help to have a resurrected Jesus show up again like he does elsewhere, so they added him in Mark. They also added him appearing to his buddies out on a walk, and added a part where Jesus appeared to the 11 remaining disciples. My favorite addition from to the end of Mark is by far the strangest thing I could imagine adding. Somewhere along the line, somebody decided that what the resurrection really needs is more miracles. So they added that true followers of Jesus will be able to carry dangerous snakes around and drink poison. They'll be able to perform more run-of-the-mill miracles like healing the sick just by laying hands on them, too. Poison-drinking, snake-handling, and faith-healing! Now that sounds way more like a victorious resurrection in the face of death than three terrified women running out of a tomb. That's how you tell a story about Resurrection!
As one who comes from a long line of loud-mouthed story-tellers, I can't really blame the scribes who added these new endings to the Gospel story. I understand this impulse to improve on a story by adding more exciting bits. What could be more exciting than snake-handling and poison-drinking? I also understand the impulse to try to finish the story on an up-note. People, myself included, seem to like stories with a tidy, happy ending. After such a grueling and tragedy-filled week, both in the story and in real life, don't many of us hope that something good will happen once these women set out for the tomb? After such a weighty week, I don't necessarily want to be reminded that sometimes even good news can be too scary to share. I don't really want to be reminded of how terrifying encounters with the Divine can be. I don't want to think about failure to share the good news of God's action in the world. What I want is the rain clouds to shift from central Kentucky to California's central basin. What I want is our projector to be returned with a note that says "We're sorry. We're getting clean. We wanted to bring this back." What I want is for my stuffy nose to clear up and my cat to feel better and for 300 families to not have lost their loved ones to meaningless and cruel violence. What I want is a happy ending. And, the oldest ending of the Gospel of Mark doesn't seem all that happy.
Back in seminary, we spent some time comparing the resurrection stories in the Gospels. As I worked on my sermon this week, something one of my professors said came back to me. When we looked at this very same passage and saw that the women were so afraid that they said nothing to anyone, she said, "Well, they must have told someone. Or else we wouldn't be reading it." The Gospel of Mark is the oldest gospel. It was probably written 30 -40 years after Jesus died. If the women were the only witnesses to the Resurrection and they didn't tell anybody, how did the author of Mark know about it in order to write it down? If they didn't tell anybody, how did Paul know about the Resurrection to write about it in his letters to the Corinthians, letters that he wrote about 20 years after Jesus died? If the women were so scared that they never told anybody, how are you and I sitting here, smelling spring flowers, wearing our Sunday best, and singing "Christ the Lord is Risen Today"? They must have told someone. Or else we wouldn't be reading about it today.
What this tells me is that even on our worst weeks, when tragedy has struck, when we feel terrible, when our trust has been betrayed, and we are afraid, even on these weeks where we cannot bring ourselves to speak of the Resurrection that we have seen, there is still hope that we can bear witness to New Life on another week. We can still tell the story of what we've seen on another week, a week that's not so raw. A week that's not so scary. A week that doesn't hurt so much. What this story tells me is that the Good News is still the Good News, even if we're too scared to tell it right off. Even if we need to take some time to share what we've seen. Even if we're scared no one will believe us, the Good News is still the Good News, and the Resurrection is still the Resurrection. What this story tells me is that we still have chance to speak of God's work in our lives and in our world, even if we are too much in awe to speak of it today. Maybe we can tell our Resurrection story tomorrow. Or, maybe it will be the next day. In the meantime, the angel is still right there in the tomb, reassuring us. Do not be afraid. Jesus has been raised. You will see him again. You just have to go back to that first place you saw him. He is going ahead of you. But, don't worry. You'll see him again, just like he told you. When we're less afraid, we'll tell the story of the Resurrection, too. We'll let our alleluias loose, too. If those women could do it, we can too.
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon
Fred Craddock, "He is Not Here: Mark 16:1-8": http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2701
Karoline Lewis, "Resurrection Matters": http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=3574
Paul S. Berge's commentary on Mark 16:1-8: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1313
Anna Carter Florence, Preaching Moment #010: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2249
Pheme Perkins, "Mark" in The New Interpreter's Bible, ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995).
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.