That’s it? Really? That’s the end? The three women who discover the empty tomb are so terrified and amazed, so bewildered and afraid, that they run away and they don’t tell anyone?
That’s not a very satisfying ending, is it? But then, as we all know, it’s not the ending. Two thousand years have passed since that morning, and we haven’t reached the ending yet.
The Gospel of Mark, the one on which the church is focused this year, can be somewhat abrupt. Not much in there in the way of extended narratives. We tend to think of the Resurrection story as more extensive, more detailed, because we merge all of the four different gospel versions together in our minds.
The Gospel of Matthew concludes with the Great Commission, in which Jesus himself, appearing to his disciples, tells them to “Go forth and baptize all nations” and encourages them with the words, “I will be with you always.” The Gospel of Luke contains the beautiful story of the Road to Emmaus in which Jesus appears on the road alongside two of his disciples, who are walking sadly away from Jerusalem, their hopes dashed, their hearts broken. They don’t recognize him until later in the evening, when he breaks bread with them – and then they know: he is risen, and he is among them. And in the Gospel of John, which we read at the Sunrise Service this morning, Jesus appears to the devastated Mary Magdalene, alone in the garden on Easter morning, and exhorts her to “go and tell the others” – which she runs to do.
All of these stories swirl about in our imaginations as we recall that first Easter morning. And all together they offer us a fuller picture of the resurrected Jesus as he was first experienced by his closest followers and friends. But none of them tells us the ending either – because we ourselves are part of the story, we ourselves are called to recognize Jesus, we ourselves are called to practice resurrection.
Here in our church, we’ve spent these last six weeks of Lent talking about spiritual practices, about the practices to which we are called as Christians, the practices which help us learn and understand what it means to follow Jesus. Some of them we’ve all recognized easily: practicing gratitude, practicing Sabbath, practicing discipleship, even practicing preparation. All of these aspects of life contain within them a spiritual dimension, an opportunity to be attentive to God and to what God is doing in our lives,
Some of the practices have sounded a little strange: practicing the desert and practicing paradox. But we have learned ways of following Jesus even in the dry, dusty, and bleak desert times of our lives, and we have learned that paradox is just another word for the Christian journey. “Those who want to save their lives must lose them,” right? That’s the essential paradox, the basic combination of opposites, of the Christian pilgrimage: that to gain life in Christ, we must lose the ordinary life to which we cling as though it were all there is.
So what about today’s practice, the practice of resurrection? Another strange one? Or another practice that reminds us that yes, this is the core of Christianity: resurrection. A new kind of life. A life that scoffs at death. A life that does not permit death to be the last word. Resurrected life is the life of Easter morning. A life about music, and light, and lilies – but that’s barely the beginning. A light that turns its back on the tomb. A life in which God is at work, redeeming all of creation and transforming all of us.
I didn’t make it up – that term, practicing resurrection. Perhaps its most famous recent use is in a poem with that title, “Practicing Resurrection,” by Wendell Berry. Some of you might enjoy Wendell Berry; he’s a farmer down in Kentucky and a prolific writer – poems, novels, short stories, essays. Among his passions are care of the earth, sustainable agriculture, rural communities, nonviolent solutions to conflict, and Christian faith, which he has followed all his life as a Baptist. In his poem “Practicing Resurrection,” Wendell Berry urges us to respond anew to the challenges of our lives, to recognize that our faith makes claims on us and invites us to understand the world and our lives in ways different from the understanding our materialistic, violent, and careless culture tries to impose upon us.
What can it mean, to practice resurrection? Today’s Easter reading from Mark, as brief and unsatisfactory as it might seem on a first go-round, offers us two important clues.
The first clue is found in the behavior of the three women, and of the men who aren’t even present. The reality is that resurrection is dramatic, and earth-shattering, and threatening – and that a response of fear and trembling, of terror and amazement, is entirely appropriate. Have you ever done what the men here have done, in what looks to be a bad situation – have you ever simply exempted yourself from participation? Or even in what might be a good situation, but you’re not entirely sure about that? Have you simply not shown up?
Or maybe you’ve behaved as the women did in Mark’s version, as Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome did; maybe you’ve attempted something difficult, and then run away?
Imagine the followers of Jesus on this first Easter morning. D. and I were talking about this the other night. Imagine how frightened they must have been! Roman soldiers all over town. Their beloved leader executed in a publicly degrading and tortuous way. And the cemetery – cemeteries then were not the pleasant, park-like environments we have to come to expect. They were on the edge of the city, lonely and unkempt, not places anyone wanted to go, especially not at sunrise. And now: no body! How many of you have visited a loved one’s grave recently? And I’m guessing that no matter how you felt – maybe the heartache and heaviness of a new loss, maybe the peaceful sadness of a loss long accepted – no matter how you felt, you were not expecting the person’s body to be GONE! Wouldn’t you be terrified if that happened? Remember, we know how the story plays out, but the disciples did not. Of course they were afraid!
And fear, and amazement, and awe, these are emotions so strong that they cause people to run away – we don’t always get it right the first time. Notice that the young man in white, presumably an angel, does not run after the women, shouting at them to pull themselves together. He does not lead them to the homes of the other disciples. He tells them what to do, but he does not set a timetable. He seems to accept that practicing resurrection, learning resurrection, is going to involve a certain degree of fear and resistance.
But that’s not the end of the story. It may be the end of Mark but, as we know from the other gospels, there’s more to it than an empty tomb and frightened, speechless disciples. They told someone eventually, or we would not all be here today, and that means that they picked up on the second clue for practicing resurrection that Mark gives us. The clue is found in the words of the angel: “But. Go. Tell.” Three words. The longer sentence is “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.”
First, there’s a “but.” With Jesus, there’s always a “but,” always a paradox. In this case, it’s: this scary, overwhelming thing has happened and you are going to be afraid, you may run away, you may not even be here – BUT: God is still at work. Not, “But – that’s okay.” Not, “But – you are no longer involved.” Not, “But don’t worry about it.”
No! The behavior that follows from fear is expected, BUT:
This story has not ended at all! It does not end with the bewilderment, with the terrified responses of the women. It doesn’t end for them and it hasn’t ended for us. We are the continuation of the story. Jesus continues to labor in our lives, even when we seem to be the ones who have abandoned him.
God seeks our involvement. God wants to work through us. If we want to see Jesus ourselves, if we want others to see Jesus, we have to go and tell.
Now, sometimes it’s really easy to practice resurrection. Sometimes you’re walking on the beach just before the sun rises, and the purple and orange and pink colors fan out like fingers across the horizon, and then the sunlight sparkles on the ocean, and it’s a resurrection day, and it’s so easy to practice: you run home filled with gratitude, and you can’t wait to go and tell everyone what you’ve seen and how beautiful God’s creation is.
And sometimes it’s so difficult, maybe even impossible. Maybe you live in Texas and you wake up in a community shelter filled with too many people and you have to walk the three miles to what used to be your house because the roads have all been destroyed and you stand there and look at the heap of rubble the tornado has left you and you are frightened and bewildered and you can’t even imagine resurrection, let alone practice it, and if you could run away, you most certainly would.
BUT. GO. TELL.
Sometimes we go and tell with words. Sometimes we go and tell by being who we are. Sometimes we go and tell through action. But go and tell, one way or another, is how we are invited to practice resurrection. Our Christian faith calls to us in both the good and the bad, in all kinds of situations. The words of the angel inspired a ragtag group of heartbroken, frightened, disorganized, and generally clueless disciples. What might they inspire in us, we who know the story, we who cherish a community that gathers each week, we who worship comfortably in a beautiful sanctuary in a land free of military oppression? To what do the words “But, Go, Tell” call us as we practice resurrection?
They call us to imagination, to recognition, to gratitude, to openness, to awe, to courage.
They call us to let Jesus work through us; Jesus, who died and rose for us, who lived and lives again for us; Jesus, who loves fiercely, who loves all of creation and all of us, whether we run away or not; Jesus, whose own death claimed victory over all death; Jesus, our friend who tells us, “Yes, I am the resurrection, I am the life --- But YOU – you go and tell.”
What is it, to practice resurrection? To remember each day, in a world in which so much seeks to defeat the message of Jesus, to remember that we are called to life, to love, and to a new beginning? Let’s listen to a bit of that poem of Wendell Berry’s:
[F]riends, everyday do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Love someone who does not deserve it. Isn’t that what we have all experienced: the love of a savior who wasn’t looking for us to be deserving, to get everything right, to be all cleaned up and perfect, to be wearing polished shoes and new hats?
And so: practice resurrection. Run away, if you must. But then remember: you are part of the story. Go and tell. Do things that don’t compute. Love the Lord whose compassion for you knows no bounds, whose love for you never fails, and who rises this day to transform your life.
He is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! And thanks be to God.
Image: Our Easter Vigil Fire ~ something my church has never done before!
Image: Our Easter Vigil Fire ~ something my church has never done before!