XCovid-19:Important Updates for Worship, Church Operations and Staying ConnectedRead more

Sermon Archives

To Be Continued

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Apr 05

Text: Mark 16: 1-8

A year ago on Easter, after finishing up our celebration here, my family and I skipped brunch and then skipped town. We flew out West for a special spring break visit to Zion National Park in Southern Utah. It was a return to a place of childhood memory for me.  In the late 60’s, my grandparents retired to a small town just a few miles outside of Zion. Rockville, Utah. Population 247. When I was a kid, we would take summer vacations there which meant daily excursions from Rockville into Zion, hiking through the narrows and rocky river beds of the Park’s towering canyons, gazing up at the massive, almost mile high sandstone cliffs of cream, pink and red that soar into a bright blue sky. After over 30 years, I was finally going back to Rockville, to quote an old R.E.M. song!  I was especially eager to return as an adult so I could try a steep hike up one of those mammoth formations called Angel’s Landing.  I was too little to climb it as a kid but I knew it from the stories my dad would tell.  It took him three tries to screw up the courage to press beyond a popular rest area and turn around known as “Scout’s Lookout.”  The last half-mile of the trail is the most strenuous, littered with sharp drop offs along a narrow steadily ascending ridge to the peak.  Gratefully, the National Park Service has anchored support chains intermittently along the route, even though they are on the inside of the ridge. If you need to cross or pass someone, the ridge is so narrow that one person stands still while the other grabs the chain with one hand and reaches around the person with another hand, as you hug and step around them.  Fortunately for me, my son Julian led the way, and he barely stopped at Scout’s Lookout!  Step by step, we pressed on to the peak for one the most spectacular vistas I have ever beheld.  The sense of awe and reverence and wonder we felt, and to be sure the accomplishment as well, was tempered by just one thing. We still had to get down.  On the way up, you look up! On the way down, there’s no avoiding it.  You have to look down! To see your feet on the way down from Angel’s Landing is to see just to the right of them a sheer thousand foot drop, straight down to the canyon floor. 

So I was reminded of Angel’s Landing when reading our passage for today. First, consider the step-by-step courage that brought the women to the tomb early on that first Easter morning. It was not the slightly foolish, death-defying courage that drove me and Julian up Angel’s Landing.  Instead it was a harder, death-embracing courage that drove the women to want to kneel down in the tomb to anoint and bless and care for his broken body.   Many of you sang it with us during our candle lit Holy Week services: were you there when they crucified my lord?  Unlike the men, these women -- Mary Magdalene, Mary and Salome - they were there, the trembling witnesses of that brutal state-sponsored execution. As the theologian Serene Jones has written: “what a fascinating account [Mark] gives of the creeping through the night and arriving at the tomb just as the sun rises over the hills.  Imagine what they must have felt as they walked – their overwhelming grief, anger, fear.  Imagine too the raw determination that must have drove them there – that time of day, that time in history, that season of unrelenting violence.” 

Now, consider too the strange way Mark ends his gospel, again with the women.  And let’s be clear that what you heard is the end of his gospel. The so-called “longer ending” of Mark was added at least a hundred years latter.  In the original version, after the young man, perhaps an angel, proclaims the Good News that the crucified one has been raised, the story ends with this:  “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them.”  In fact, the words in Greek are even stronger: not terror and amazement, but tromos - trauma, and ecstasis - ecstasy. Trauma and ecstasy had seized them.   If only Mark had stopped there, we might have something more to work with!  But the very last line is this:  “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Really?  That’s the way he’s gonna wrap it up?  What kind of ending and inspiration is that, and for Easter Sunday, no less?  Mark totally leaves us hanging, on the edge of a cliff as high as Angel’s Landing. He leaves us to find our own footing on those precarious edges between the real and the surreal, between history and hope, between trauma and ecstasy, failure and promise, between the mile high expectation that Easter brings and the profound disappointment of our still suffering world. He’s shown us the vista, to be sure – The crucified one has been raised!   Death and Rome and violence will not have the last word!  God’s love is stronger than them all! He’s even given us a glimpse of the new community – Go tell the disciples, and especially Peter, that they are loved, forgiven and free to begin anew, in Galilee, right where it all began.  It's a new day, without shame or blame or fear or loneliness! He goes before you and he’ll be there with you, always.”  But the Mary’s and Salome, despite their earlier courage and devotion, they can’t handle it. They’re scared speechless.  (And yes I did say speechless though you can hear what you want!).  Why the loose ends of human fear and silence, Mark?   This ending is not so much exclamation as ellipsis, a to be continued, dot, dot, dot version of the Easter proclamation. Is it enough for us? 

The great literary critic Frank Kermode writes that Mark’s “conclusion is either intolerably clumsy; or…incredibly subtle.”  I’m going with the latter.  Its subtle -- definitely subtle --  while at the same time being almost pastoral in its realism.  The text invites a certain empathy and tenderness for these broken-hearted, fearful women who have no idea what to make of what they just heard.  The story lets the women be where they are.  Even more, it lets us be where we are, trying to integrate this promising news into the harsh realities of human suffering.  As Barbara Lundblad has said, “Of all the Easter gospels, Mark's story invites us to stand where those first trembling witnesses stood. Those three women didn't see Jesus. Neither do we. They didn't hear Jesus call their names. Neither have we. They weren't invited to touch his wounded hands. We haven't touched Jesus' hands either. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome are our silent sisters.”  Silent for a time, yes, and scared for a time, you bet, but not for long, eventually it sunk in, and eventually, if sprang free, for how else would we have their story!

And thank goodness it did! After the winter we’ve had, and the headlines we’ve been reading, I’m as ready as anyone for that piercing proclamation of joy that dawns again on Easter, like no other day!  By all means, bring on the birds and butterflies, and the lilies, and the belting out of Handel’s Messiah!  Today of all days, God says yes to it all, yes to new life, yes to forgiveness, yes to a feast of love!  

 But sometimes, for some of us, even the best and most world rockin’ news is better offered with a gentle whisper, with a touch of restraint, and more importantly with time to let it sink in fully.  “For trauma and ecstasy seized them,” And, as another translation put its, “they did not tell anyone, because they were afraid, you see?”  Can we see?  It grabbed them by the throat.  It took their breath away.  Maybe their fear and silence is saying “give us a minute here!”  Maybe it’s saying “I think I see where you are taking me here God, and I like it, I promise I do, but I am not exactly equipped to absorb it just yet!”

 When Mark wrote this, around the year 70, these gospel accounts were still very much Jewish stories. Even the idea of resurrection had Jewish antecedents. As Parker Palmer has noted: “For Jews, learning to live openheartedly in the face of immense and devastating heartbreak is a historical as well as a spiritual imperative.” To illustrate, Palmer shares an old Hasidic tale: A disciple asks the Rabbi, “Why does the Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The Rabbi answers, ‘It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until one day the heart breaks and words fall in.”

Surely Mark knew the essence of this tale. The hearts of the women were still breaking.  Our hearts are still breaking, and even raging at the cruel injustices of our world.   Yet, on this Easter Day, God lays a holy word of unending peace and mercy upon the hearts of those women, upon the regret filled hearts of Peter and the disciples, and upon the hearts of you and me!  “He is not here.  He has been raised!  He goes before you!”

Ultimately, Mark leaves us with a paradox!  On the one hand, there’s an understanding patience, an awareness that resurrection doesn’t just happen in one day.  Its going to take time, in our individual and collective lives before the promise can sink in and be raised up with in us!   On the other hand, Mark’s cliff hanger leaves us with an unsettling urgency, and an agitation to enter into and continue the story ourselves.  We’re called to share the fear and trembling of our silent sisters but to share the still emerging joy as well, the joy of the Risen Christ, the joy of the new community, the joy of God’s boundless mercy!   As Clarence Jordon wisely notes “the crowning evidence that Jesus was still alive was not a vacant grave, but spirit-filled fellowship. Not a rolled-away stone, but a carried away church." 

Thank God the Resurrection doesn’t just happen in one day!  Mark’s gospel is a blessed invitation to put Easter on the slow burn for a change, to let it simmer upon our hearts until it can melt its way in and until its new life rises in us!  But in the meantime, Mark takes us right where Jesus wants us!  He leaves us out there hanging on those risky edges of reality, in the tombs that remind us of our death, on the margins where people are grieving and afraid, out on the ridges where they are silently waiting for a kind word, a healing gesture, where they know their need as deep as life, for that bread of mercy and that cup of justice and joy.  Christ takes us out beyond our small circles where “they” becomes “us” and together we taste and see not merely the world as it is but the world as it should be, the world as God created it to be!

A step by step courage that honors our grief and fears…

An integration of those deep canyons of human trauma and those angels landings of ecstasy...

A model of divine patience with us that we might be more patient with ourselves…

An ongoing presence that goes before us, like a light and a grace that precedes our every step.

In the words of 18th century German Mystic Angelus Sirelius:  “Friend, let this be enough; if you wish to read beyond, go and become yourself the writ and yourself the essence!”  Friends, Mark’s ‘to be continued’ ending is more than enough!  If it leaves us with still unanswered questions, with mysteries too great to be solved, if it leaves still hungry for more conversation, for more communion, for ever more tastes of resurrection, maybe that’s just the point. 

On this glorious day, thanks be to God for the heights of depths of all creation!  Thanks be to God for those women and for the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us even now!  Thanks be to God for the gift of Christ’s unending love!   Amen!

Looking for ways to support our community during this unprecedented time of need? The Missions and Social Justice Committee has compiled and vetted a short list of organizations looking for assistance to aid in their work in the COVID-19 response...

In response to the Coronavirus outbreak, the Shelter has expanded into Sage Hall to allow for greater social distancing, and is now open to guests around the clock, thanks to additional funding from the Commonwealth. They would very much welcome...