Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on Easter Day, April 4, 2021

Posted by on Sun, Apr 4, 2021 in Easter, Sermons

The Sunday of the Resurrection: Easter Day

April 4, 2021

Who writes a gospel with such a bleak and joyless ending? Where is the resurrection joy in going with the faithful Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome, if only to learn they said nothing to anyone because they were afraid? This is why no one likes using this gospel on Easter. Given this year’s choice between John and Mark, clergy will usually take John. Oddly this year many are choosing Mark, even our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry chose it this Easter. His frequent refrain in preaching this ‘trembling and bewildering’ version is “Hallelujah anyway!” to quote the old song. And I concur. 

The other three gospels all have more promising or Easter-like resurrection stories. Not Mark. There’s no appearance of Jesus, no words from him, no angels, no earthquake or stunned guards. Instead the three women go to anoint his body early in the morning, with no idea how they’ll move the stone. Grief drives them there anyway. Finding the tomb open, they expect to see Jesus’ body lying there, instead it is someone else altogether. ‘A messenger’ in brilliant white telling them not to be so amazed, that (as Jesus had told them) he has been raised and is going to Galilee, where “you will see him.” Trembling and bewildered they leave and tell no one, they were were afraid. It sounds defeating and sad, incomplete.

These grieving women are afraid, and flee from becoming the first evangelists. This ending was so contrary to satisfactory expectation that in the 2nd or 3rd century people added two more endings to help ‘complete’ Mark. In one the women do go and tell, and Jesus appears, sending them all out to tell. In the other he appears first to Mary Magdalene but the others won’t believe her when she says he’s alive. He continues appearing until they do, sending them all out to tell. (That ending even goes on about snakes and deadly drinks.) The earliest authorities and most ancient translations do not have either of these later additions. They end Mark where we did today. Still, why on earth end with fear and silence? Bp. Curry might say, Hallelujah Anyway! —because perhaps our discontent is just what Mark intended.

My best explanation is roundabout, but go with me a moment. Do re mi fa so la ti….  Is there anyone who didn’t finish for me with ‘Do’? I’d like to take credit for this, but through a chicken-walk of links and sources (see Somerville below) I learned composer Franz Liszt did not like getting up in the morning, and so his wife, Countess Marie d’Agoult, would go to their piano and play the seven note scale you just heard on the piano, which of course feels frustratingly incomplete without that next note. Franz would hear it from his bed. Unable to let it go, the sleepy man was driven to go downstairs and play that final note. Marie and breakfast awaiting him. Whether the story is true or not, it is human nature to finish something, it satisfies. Like that last piece of a jigsaw puzzle. The later endings added to today’s reading were an attempt at that satisfaction. It didn’t work. The wording even sounds incongruous. I think the author of Mark wanted to hold this tension at the end, knowing our nature would move us to rectify it—and knowing the love of Christ could show us how. Yes those added endings are tidier, but do they also absolve us from action? If this story is ever going to have an ending like Jesus might write, we can’t be content just to read what others once did.

Throughout this gospel we frequently hear that Jesus heals someone or does something remarkable, and then insists they tell no one! Healing a man of blindness he admonishes him not to even go into the village! But ‘the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.’ Of course they did. In what is called the Transfiguration, three disciples go up the mountain with Jesus, where he shines with unearthly light and is inexplicably joined by Elijah and Moses. Clouds roll in and God’s voice booms from the heavens calling Jesus; beloved Son — how could anyone keep that to themselves? Still, as they came down the mountain, Jesus said to “tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” 

Understandably, when Jesus was raised, the news came with the instruction; Go! Tell! When we hear they didn’t do this, it frustrates us. And like the urge to complete that musical scale, the remedy is for us to carry forth the glory of that first Easter morning. Faced with doing this ourselves, we can understand their initial fear and flight. (Frankly, utter the words “Evangelism Committee” in any traditional Episcopal church and the same thing will happen!) But what if it isn’t always so scary? We know at some point they found their voices or we would not be hearing it today. How can we hear this and not be inclined to fulfill it? [sung] Jesus Christ is risen today, Allelu —-  I can’t imagine anyone listening didn’t just finish that Alleluia for me, as I hope we cannot help but enter the fullness of this Alleluia call. 

We are leaving the tomb, asked to carry Christ with us into a world in need of it. When we lit and blessed the new Paschal candle this morning, we prayed, May the light of Christ rising in glory dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds. This is what we what we share. Jesus mission wasn’t to push a new religion but to love and heal and bring salvation. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves, to do so as Jesus did. In a few minutes we’ll renew our baptismal vows, and in those vows is our promise to continue his resurrection ministry. To do this we will need to know each other; listen, care, and appreciate each other’s humanity as with the eyes of God, who can work through us to bring this life-giving light and wholeness to the broken places and broken people, including receiving it ourselves. 

Where to start? The women were bewildered too. They knew what to do with grief; they had each other and the burial spices and their ritual to anoint the dead. But they had no idea how to deal with news of Jesus raised from the dead! Still reeling from the crucifixion, they were focused on grief and death. We understand this; the past year has brought us in constant proximity to a magnitude of sadness, fear and grief. Mass shootings and deaths from covid-19 are horribly frequent and becoming dangerously commonplace. We too are bewildered and frightened to see acts of racism, violence, and injustice brought upon every discernible population, somehow named as villains; Black, Asian, Moslem, Latino, LGBTQIA+—on airplanes, at borders, in schools and in supermarkets, at the Capitol and in the voting booth. Where would the women have run to from these tombs? How can we live into our resurrection ministry in this world? We act with courage, in love and hope. I pray we can do this instead of, as Esau McCaulley says, “putting it all in the tomb that contains my dead hopes and dreams for what the church and country could be. I am left with only tears.” 

McCaulley is a New Testament professor and a NYT contributor who also wrote on Mark’s resurrection passage this week. He said the (original) ending “points to a truth that often gets lost in the celebration: Easter is a frightening prospect. For the women, the only thing more terrifying than a world with Jesus dead was one in which he was alive.” Yes, ours is a resurrection faith and I don’t mean a theoretical one! It needs be an active, courageous, imaginative one. For as McCaulley wonderfully says, “Christians, at their best, are the fools who dare believe in God’s power to call dead things to life.” 

Like Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome did not expect Jesus to have been raised, we cannot accept it either unless we are willing to ‘go and tell’ — really  to go and love, to heal and forgive, to engender justice. All those which led to that tomb to start with. Ours is to follow the Christ who came out of it, who rose from the dead to fulfill his promise of salvation, of new life. He has been sending people out of that tomb to complete his work since that first Easter morning, and it is an honor for us to sing out that Good News. Join me; Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia!

Words from Presiding Bishop Curry’s Easter 2021 message.

The Rev. James Green Somerville is a Baptist pastor in Richmond Va. (found via link with Bishop Curry). In Somerville’s Easter 2021 message he shared the story of Franz Liszt and his wife, Marie d’Agoult, gleaned from Rick Steves’ Europe.

Esau McCaulley is a contributing NYT opinion writer, an assistant professor of New Testament, and the author of “Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope.” Quotes are from the April 2, 2021 NYT opinion entitled, The Unsettling Power of Easter.

© 2021 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.