April 1, 2018 - Easter Sunday
Nadia Bolz-Weber, a wonderfully radical, deeply faithful, heavily tattooed Lutheran pastor is quoted to have said this week, “Clergy and church workers, here’s our yearly reminder: Jesus will rise from the dead even if you forgot to print out the right hymns, even if the lilies arrive already wilted, even if the whole choir gets food poisoning. Nothing will keep the stone from rolling away. You are loved.”
Now, I’m thinking I could probably end right here, return to my presider’s seat, and carry on with our anthem, which of course is possible because our choir has not been stricken with food poisoning. But I’m also thinking that this may benefit from a little bit of unpacking, so here goes.
Nothing will keep the stone from rolling away.
Two days ago, on Good Friday, Matthew’s Passion narrative spoke of Jesus’ brutal journey to and death on the cross. In keeping with standard burial practices at that time in that culture, his body would have been wrapped in a cloth along with perfumes and spices and placed in a tomb, so that later on, when the flesh had decomposed, friends or relatives would collect the bones, fold them up neatly, and put them in a bone-box (known as an ‘ossuary’). We were reminded on Friday that after Jesus’ death the authorities were concerned that Jesus’ followers may steal his body so that his prediction of rising from death after three days may appear fulfilled. A large stone, possibly two metres in diameter (that’s six and a half feet) blocked the entrance into the tomb, and a guard was provided to make absolutely sure that the body could not be stolen. In addition to their specific concern about Jesus’ followers stealing Jesus’ body, grave robbery at that time was quite common.
But even with this very large stone; even with round the clock security guarding the tomb to make absolutely sure that this body would not be stolen… Even with all that, the women in this morning’s story, on their way to anoint Jesus’ body, approach the tomb; they are discussing among themselves who could possibly roll away the stone, and they discover that it has already been done. This group of grief stricken, devastated women discover life in a place where they were anticipating death.
Nothing will keep the stone from rolling away.
And here’s the rub: The promise of Easter is life – life that transcends death. Life that transcends death even in this earthly existence. And, life that transcends physical death as well.
So, firstly, what does it mean to find life that transcends death even in this earthly existence?
My husband David and I, and even a number of our family members, have been watching David Letterman’s Netflix series: My Next Guest Needs No Introduction. His latest guest is Malala Yousafzai, who was gunned down by the Taliban at the age of 15 for promoting the rights of women and girls to receive education. The bullet went in through her left temple, and travelled down through her ear and neck; the nerve damage was extensive, nearly causing her death. She was immediately transported to a hospital in England where after surgeries and rehabilitation, she eventually recovered.
Malala Yousafzai has since resumed her commitment to speaking out for women and girls, passionately promoting equal rights for education; urging leaders and politicians to put a stop to girls and women being deprived of education. As a result of this vicious attack on her life, she now speaks out to a much wider audience that is longing to pay attention. At the age of seventeen she received the Nobel Piece Prize for her work.
In her interview with David Letterman, she said that in all things, the best revenge is forgiveness. When she spoke about the individual who fired the near fatal bullet, she said with an astonishing degree of tenderness that he was a young boy, who truly believed that he was doing the right thing. He believed this because of the teaching he had received. Understanding this, has helped her forgive him for what he did. Malala is now studying Politics, Psychology, and Economics at Oxford University in England.
This remarkable young woman’s life is a death and resurrection story. With God’s help, out of the ashes of a bullet that was intended to end her life, she has risen to raise her voice effectively throughout the world.
As David Letterman was trying to understand the why of all this, he recalled two other people whose stories exemplify such tenacity and courage: One of a young woman who was diagnosed many years ago with stage four multiple myeloma and has spent the rest of her life working toward a cure; the other, his friend who, while still quite young, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and has spent his life since then raising awareness and helping to support the search for a cure. These are resurrection stories. Out of the ashes of devastating disappointment there has risen new hope. And I would argue that we see these death and resurrection stories all the time.
The promise of Easter is life – life that transcends death.
Malala Yousafzai is a Muslim, and who knows what the religious convictions may be of the two other individuals of whom David Letterman speaks. But somehow, it appears that there are no barriers to this experience of God’s son rising from death to life. God has become intimately involved in the reality of everyday life; beginning with a manger (a feeding trough for animals), dying on a cross in the company of common criminals, and culminating with the removal of a large stone… this is no longer a God that is experienced as simply ‘above’, but also, very much ‘within’. This gift of new life seems to have been infused into the whole human race.
Jesus’ resurrection does not take him away from human reality, but more deeply and fully into it so that the whole of creation is suffused with his risen life; despair can be transformed into hope; hatred transformed into forgiveness – and even – with God’s help – reconciliation; fear transformed into courage; silence transformed into a voice that can facilitate change. Christians will interpret this resurrection experience in a particularly Christ centered way, and that is as it should be; and at the same time, this gift of new life – in some mysterious way – may be seen as universal.
The women in this morning’s gospel are told that the crucified Jesus of Nazareth has been raised! They are told that he is no longer there, in the tomb. He is on the move. They are told to go and tell Jesus’ disciples – including Peter – that he is going ahead of them to Galilee, where they will see him, just as he had told them. I like the piece here which explicitly includes Peter; that is, Peter, the one who denied Jesus when he needed him most… even Peter is to be included as this news is shared. No one is excluded.
In this story, the women are told that Jesus has gone ahead to Galilee, and they are instructed to tell the others so that they all may find him there. This piece in Mark’s telling of the resurrection story is likely making the point that they are being called to wrench themselves away from their current familiar place in order to head out into the unknown… to discover Jesus ‘on the way.’ The question for us, as twenty-first-century disciples, may well be: Where is our Galilee? Where are those places that we avoid because our fears are holding us back? Are we remaining in Jerusalem when we should be on the road, discovering Jesus on the way?
For St. Peter’s, most recently, our Galilee is a collaborative ministry model. Our current administrative structure was where we felt comfortable because it was what we had always known, but we discerned that Jesus was saying, “Go to Galilee; enter into this new, potentially vibrant collaborative model, and you will find me along the way.” Whatever it is that you may fear: new challenges; new beginnings… perhaps you are being called into those places, and I can assure you that – if you pay attention – you will find the power, and comfort, and strength of the risen Jesus along the way.
Maybe you have carried a grudge against someone for so long that it has begun to feel comfortable because it has become so familiar… I wonder if the risen Jesus is saying, “Go to Galilee; go to that place known as forgiveness, and you will find me along the way; I will help you begin to discover that person’s weakness and frailty, and with my help, this will pave the way to forgiveness.”
Maybe – for a long time - you have been grieving the death, or the loss, of someone you have deeply loved; maybe you’ve been locked into this place of grief for so long that it now sits comfortably within you… I wonder if the risen Jesus is saying, “Go to Galilee; I invite you to travel toward that place of joy and hope, and I will meet you there.”
And this leads to my next and final point, which is an acknowledgement of a further place, or state, where we may expect to find Jesus along the road, and that is in death itself. In dying and rising to new life, Jesus has actually defeated physical death; when his disciples met him along the road, he was physically there with them. We are invited to find comfort in this. This means that as we grieve the death of those we have loved, we do so with hope and joyful expectation that one day, all in the fullness of time, we – too - will rise from the ashes of our death to be reunited in the company of the whole heavenly realm.I don’t pretend to understand this. The best I can do is remind you that this is a primary teaching of our faith.
The promise of Easter is life – life that transcends death.
It appears that Mark’s resurrection story ends abruptly with the women, even though they are told to go and tell Jesus’ disciples – even Peter – the news of the empty tomb and where they are expected to go; even though they are told to do this, they say nothing to anyone because they were afraid. However, most scholars agree that there was likely a longer ending that somehow got lost along the way. And, of course, we know that eventually they did share this news, because if they hadn’t we wouldn’t be here today. So, even if Mark’s gospel didn’t initially intend to end the story there, I think it is helpful to ponder the possibility of a prolonged silence on the part of those women before they set out to share this astonishing news. Pondered in this way, their silence might convey a genuine experience of faith: that is, a sense of numinous, speechless awe in the presence of the divine. How can our initial response be anything other than to be rendered speechless in the presence of such love, such gift, such mystery? Perhaps this is a day to embrace the silence that comes with such an incomprehensible gift, and then, when the time is right, continue sharing with others – in word and in deed - the news of the empty tomb.
Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!