Homily for Easter, April 1, 2018 – the Rev. Stephanie Shepard
St. John the Apostle, Port Moody
“What do you mean He’s not here?”
I speak to you in the name of the one, true, and living God, whom we name as the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of the world. Amen.
Most pastors are happy to see a full church without laying guilt on you about whether you show up on other Sundays of the year. I am delighted you are hearing/reading this sermon, so I don’t want you to take this as a chastisement. Rather an honest questioning: Why did you come here this Easter? What are you looking for?
If you are hoping to find God kept safe for you inside a building, you might be a little disappointed. As an old church sign states, “Come to worship God: He is risen, He is not here!” So why do we bother to come together at all? Why not stay home?
We all have reasons. It’s not just to show off Easter bonnets (nice hats). It’s not just because tradition and respect are important. And it’s not just to reconnect with old neighbours or sing a few favourite songs with our family to celebrate the season. I think we are honestly seeking a spiritual experience here in this place: an assurance that there is a power for good that cuts through all the pain and fear and death of the world. A love that embraces us and gives us courage to go on. We don’t want to get tricked when we come to a service. Today is April Fools’ Day, but there is a difference between dipping Brussels Sprouts in chocolate for your kids (as Jimmy Kimmel suggests), and the cruel surprises that life throws at us. We need some good news. But if Easter is supposed to be the happy ending to the sad events of the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus, then the Scripture reading from Mark 16:1-8 today falls short.
This last chapter of Mark’s gospel tells the story of the women on that first Easter morning. They come to the tomb to say goodbye to Jesus in the way we are sometimes able to do when a loved one dies. We face the reality of death by sitting with the body, touching, preparing it for its last journey into the ground, and marking the place where it will lie. Death is not a happy ending, but these tasks help provide closure in their grief. But there are obstacles. The first obstacle is the large stone that blocks the door of the tomb. It is too much for them to move by themselves, as our grief often feels. But when they look again, it is out of their way. Did they not notice, at first, through their tears, or has kindness done at least this much?
But then there is another crueler trick. The women have coming seeking Jesus’ body, and the body is not inside. They are surprised by a stranger sitting there in the sepulchre: someone living in this place for the dead. Now, the translation to English in our Bible is poor. The women are not actually alarmed. They are not afraid. They are amazed! Awe-struck! Was there that little leap of heart that happens when you think for an instant you see someone you know is really dead? Or do they recognize this man in white as a messenger, an angel from God who will give them the good news they are longing to believe? “Surprise! He has risen. He is not here. Look, there is the spot where they laid him” (Mark 16:6). And it is empty.
But what now? They cannot stay and mourn. There is a hope un-looked for. There is a new task ahead. The stranger tells them to go. First to the other disciples and Peter to tell them. Then to Galilee, where they will see Jesus, just as he told them. They first met Jesus in Galilee, and it is in Galilee that we first meet Jesus in Mark’s gospel. Galilee was where they lived and worked and have family. It is the everyday world. And that is where God meets us, in our everyday lives. In fact, the very first verse of the story is “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). The command is to return to the beginning of the journey again, and in the road we travel every day we will see our Lord and our hope.
The ending of the gospel is not the ending of the whole story. It’s the invitation to start ours. Again. Reconstruction of community and healing of the world are tasks we join in when we look for Jesus before us, ever beckoning down the resurrection road. We are each called onward in ministry by what we say and do. It’s not a matter of showing up for a dose of Easter joy and then forgetting. How we live every day can proclaim this truth.
There is the danger of keeping silent. The last line of the Scripture reading is an April fools trick, because it reads “They went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). That open-ended statement was intentionally left by the author for generations of Christians to puzzle and dispute and disprove. What if the women had stayed silent? There would have been no good news. They would have been no movement of the risen Christ. There would have been no more Bible written. There would have been no Church. You would not be here this morning.
Those first apostles did not let fear get the last word. They speak out. They run and they get the eleven remaining disciples, even Peter- especially Peter who had denied Jesus and really needed the assurance of God’s forgiveness and love. They start back on the road of relationship with the risen One they call Son of God. And the good news spreads, in spite of all the forces that oppose God’s foolishness in loving the world.
Some tried to soften the gospel by adding more verses, to give it more of the happy ending. It is untidy and confusing to leave readers hanging, struggling to make sense of this cliff-hanger. But you see, the good news depends on each of us, and our response to the Easter message. What if we stayed silent? There would be no more good news. The Bible would be a dusty, unread book. Ministry would cease and beautiful buildings like this would close. There would be no more Church. As Ched Myers says in his book entitled Say to This Mountain:
“The genius of this incomplete ending, like a painting lacking the finishing stroke, is that it demands a response from its audience. Mark leaves us not with a neat resolution but with a terrible ultimatum. Who will tell this good news? For it is not only the women who “know”- we now know as well. If we wish the story of discipleship to continue, we cannot remain mere spectators… Even our best efforts at faithfulness seem inevitably to founder. But all that is part of the story too. For it is at the point of failure and disillusionment that the invitation comes again. Then our discipleship journey either truly ends or truly begins.” (p.208-209)
This is Easter. Again. Now is our turn to tell of resurrection. Not just what we have found, but what we are still hoping for on the path ahead. That’s where we follow the risen One, and encounter healing, and forgiveness, and acceptance with the other people on the Way. We don’t always find God in the obvious places. And when we do encounter the holy, it’s not always what we expect.
When I was a guide leader, I took a group of girls geocaching at Camp Kanaka, in Maple Ridge. The GPS units we used were not very reliable, and we weren’t very familiar with the process. But one cold grey day we set off into the woods, telling them that this would be great fun. We couldn’t find the first cache. Someone had run off with it or moved it. It started raining and whining. But we finally found a second location and with great expectation wrestled the little box from its secret place. We opened it up to see what treasure was inside- and it was empty. Disappointed, we headed home and turned the corner of the trail. And that’s when we met the bear. We may have bombed at geo-caching, but the girl guides never forgot that camp.
Faith is not about us getting it right. It’s about being able to admit our own doubt and weakness and fear, and then trusting that God will help us to speak in love despite all of our misgivings. An early church leader called Paul puts it this way: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those of us who are being saved it is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?… Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God. ” (1 Corinthians 1:18-20, 26-30).
The forces of evil in this world tell us that power and security and looking after only your inner circle is what’s important. Sharing is foolish, loving is foolish, caring is foolish. Coming to church on a Sunday morning is foolish, because there are too many other more important things to do in your week. Here we gather to hear good news, even as the One who redeems us is ahead of us, at work out in the world. Surprise. He is risen. He is not here. You can be touched by His presence in the quiet, in the bread and wine, in the people around you. You will feel the power of His love and forgiveness and be strengthened in this time. But He is not going to stay put here in this holy place until the next time you enter a church. Instead, I guarantee He will be going ahead for you to come and see Him in your Galilee. Amen.
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