“Resurrecting Faith” by Elizabeth Gelfeld

March 31, 2024

Easter Sunday

Text: Mark 16:1-8

When Paul Holmes came up here to preach a few weeks ago, he commented that Erica’s sermon of the previous Sunday was a tough act to follow. Then, during the time of reflections after his sermon, Erica said that she wouldn’t want to have to follow Paul, either. And Dave, who was set to preach the next week, said he was a bit nervous about following both of them.

Throughout the six weeks of Lent, members of Seekers’ Racial and Ethnic Justice Ministry Team have brought to us the word in a series of sermons that went beyond anything I’ve heard before in their probing of topics around White privilege and White supremacy, their relentless questioning of our assumptions and habits, and their unblinking courage in confession. Besides the sermons, we also prayed with the ministry team’s liturgy and prayers, and we watched and puzzled over and debated the evocative, changing scenes they set on the altar each week.

As if we didn’t have enough tough acts to follow, the Lenten season was bookended by Marjory’s preaching on the Sunday before Lent and then last week, Palm Sunday.

Let us pray. Life-giving, pain-bearing, merciful One, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts together find favor with you, our Resurrection and our Life.

Last Sunday during our Gathering time, we heard from the gospel of Mark the story of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem for his final week. In the three-year cycle of scripture readings, each of the three synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – is read for a year, with John brought in for special occasions every year. This year we are reading from Mark most Sundays. However, Easter is one of those special occasions. For reading the Resurrection story, the lectionary gives a choice between the synoptic gospel of the year and John. Usually we read John, as do most churches. But I think it can inform and maybe stretch our faith to hear the other versions of the story.

Each of the four gospels was written for a particular community of first-century Christians. While some stories are shared among two, three, or all four gospels, there is also a lot of variation, and this is especially the case with the accounts of what happened after Jesus’ death.

Did Mary Magdalene go to the tomb alone, or did other women go with her? Did the risen Christ appear to the eleven disciples on a mountain in Galilee, or did everyone, including the Christ, stay in and near Jerusalem? It depends on which story we read.

Back to Mark. As Marjory told us last week, Mark was the first written account of Jesus’ life and ministry, dating from around the years 65 to 70 CE, either during or immediately after the Jewish-Roman War that resulted in the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70. Mark was written some 40 years after the life of Jesus.

Marjory said that “some scholars call it a ‘wartime gospel,’ fast-paced and terse.” She encouraged us to read the whole gospel of Mark during the week, as preparation for Maundy Thursday, the events of the crucifixion, and, she said, “whatever soul-stories we bring to Easter morning.” I thought this was a good assignment, so I read Mark from beginning to end over the past week.

“Wartime gospel” is a good description, and that was the feeling I had reading through it. Mark fairly gallops along, without a pause to catch your breath. And it’s story after story, mostly parables and miracles. Jesus heals – the person in the synagogue whose unclean spirit shouted at Jesus; Simon’s mother-in-law, sick with a fever; a person with leprosy, who moved Jesus to pity when he knelt down and begged for healing. And all of this is just the first chapter of Mark!

Mark’s Jesus is strong and on a mission. He’s teaching about God and how God’s realm is at hand, but the people aren’t getting it, especially the ones with political and religious power. They challenge him again and again, and Jesus boldly calls out their hypocrisy, quoting from Isaiah: “These people honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me.” *

Then, to the crowds of people following him for his teaching and healing, he says, “Listen to me, all of you, and try to understand.” And when his disciples ask him to explain a parable he has told to the crowd, I can see him rolling his eyes as he says, “Are you also incapable of understanding?”

Jesus teaches the truth – raw, unadorned, no ifs, ands, or buts. It’s hard to hear. It was hard for the religious authorities in Jesus’ day, and for the crowds of people coming to him for healing, and even for his closest friends. And it’s hard for us, today.

“If you would save your life, you’ll lose it, but if you lose your life for my sake, you’ll save it. … If a man divorces his wife and marries another, he commits adultery against her; and if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

Someone runs up and asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to share in everlasting life?” Jesus says, “You know the commandments.” And the person replies, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my childhood.” Jesus then looks at them with love and says, “There is one thing more that you must do. Go and sell what you have and give it to those in need. After that, come and follow me.”

I wonder how many of us actually do what Jesus teaches. I certainly don’t. I am just like that person, who, Mark tells us, owned much property and hearing Jesus’ answer walked away sadly.

I also notice how Jesus is tuned in to each individual person. His methods of healing vary a lot. In Bethsaida, some people bring to him a blind villager. Jesus first leads the person by the hand to the outskirts of the village, then he spits on the person’s eyes and lays his hands on them. This accomplishes only a partial healing, so Jesus goes through the same procedure again, and this time it works completely.

Later, in Jericho, the blind beggar Bartimaeus hears that Jesus is passing by, and he shouts, “Heir of David, have pity on me!” Jesus stops and asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?” He says, “I want to see,” and Jesus simply replies, “Go, your faith has saved you.”

Jesus also calls individuals in different ways. To some he says, “Come and follow me.” To others, “Go home to your friends.”

As Marjory mentioned last week, the entire second half of this gospel is devoted to Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and his final week. There are many stories, told at Mark’s fast pace. Last Sunday we heard John Morris read the Passion narrative, beginning with preparation for the Passover festival, Jesus’ last supper, and continuing through his death on the cross and the burial of his body in a tomb cut out of rock.

The concluding verse says, “Meanwhile, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses were looking on and observed where Jesus had been laid.”

That was Friday, the eve of Sabbath, so the women couldn’t do anything until nightfall on Saturday. It must have been a very long day for those women. I can imagine how anxiously they waited for the sun to set on that Sabbath, finally allowing them to do something in the midst of their grief. How many of us crave the relief of doing something – anything – purposeful when disaster strikes our family, our community, or our world.

Their beloved Teacher and Healer was dead, so the women set about to fulfill their laws and customs of burial. They went out and bought perfumed oils and prepared to anoint his body. They probably slept fitfully, if at all, that night. Early in morning, just after sunrise, they went to the tomb where they had seen him laid. But they had a problem, which they talked about on the way. Who would move the stone that sealed the entrance?

And then they arrived to find the stone already rolled back. They must have felt a shock of fear, but that didn’t stop them from walking into the tomb. There they saw a young person dressed in white, and Mark tells us that they were very frightened.

I have a friend who has a wonderful gift for making new words that perfectly express a phrase or sentence in a single word. Recently she created the word “whiledness” – combining the word while with wildness. As in, while we expected to go to the tomb, to anoint the body, to grieve for our beloved, to do all the things – while we expected this, we found instead … wildness, a messenger of the Holy One, who tells us not to be afraid, who tells us that what we expected … isn’t what happened.

Our expectations are upended. God has been there ahead of us

The young person in white, presumably an angel, says to the women, “Jesus is risen; he is not here. … Now go and tell the disciples and Peter … .” The women, Mark tells us, “fled from the tomb bewildered and trembling; but they said nothing to anyone, because they were so afraid.”

This is the original ending of Mark’s gospel. Two different endings were added later; they explain how the story spread and include appearances of the risen Christ. To me, it feels like the editors are working out how to end the story, and over the years one editor writes this, and another writes that. By the time we get to the next written gospels, Matthew and Luke, they’ve figured it out, smoothed the rough edges, answered the questions.

But Mark’s original ending leaves us with the unexpected, the unexplained. We often hold the mistaken belief that everything can be explained, including God.

** Yet, even as we sing “Alleluia” and proclaim, “Christ is risen; he is risen indeed!” we do this against a background of deepening crises: war and mass killing and starvation; the continuing scourge of racial and ethnic injustice and violence; the alarming pace of global warming and environmental destruction and trashing of the earth; and our own loneliness, depression, and anxiety.

We’ve witnessed and/or sustained losses on a scale we can hardly comprehend. We’re tired, numb, bewildered, and sad. We hear what the angel in the tomb is saying, and we know somehow that this is the most important thing we’ve ever heard, but we’re still trembling in fear.

How can we approach the unexpected with the perspective of the women at the tomb? Maybe what they needed was time – time to sit with the terror and amazement. Maybe that’s what we need, too. Time to take in the mystery, to feel the confusion of the first witnesses, to wait in darkness for the life of God hidden within us to emerge and grow. It might take a long time. But the life itself is certain. That’s what this story tells us.

All four gospels tell the same story: The tomb is empty. Death is overcome. Jesus lives. The telling of the story varies, as each version was told for a particular community at a particular time. And this continues. We tell the story for our community, again and again, with each of us bringing to it our own soul-stories. It’s the same story, alive and growing, resurrecting faith.

Alleluia, amen.

* Bible quotes are taken from The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007.

** For much of the thinking in this final section, I am indebted to Debie Thomas for her essay “Slow Easter,” in Journey with Jesus: A Weekly Webzine for the Global Church, 28 March 2021 (https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2966-slow-easter)

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