The Wisdom of the Empty Tomb

A Sermon for Easter; Acts 10:34-43, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Mark 16:1-8

Happy Easter!
April Fool!
Which is it?

Speaking of surprises, I grew up with surprises. My earliest is when to our mom’s dismay our grandmother brought out his enormous plate full of chocolate balls with cotton centers; we were surprised.

One Sunday lunch a fabulous a carrot frosting cake came to the table, everyone was excited; only my grandmother couldn’t cut the cake pan beneath the frosting; we didn’t see that coming.

One Christmas morning, after the appointed hour we all rushed down the stairs into the family room; it was gone! the tree, the stockings, the mountain of presents, the plate of cookies, the glass of milk all were gone, Christmas was gone! We had not been Grinched everything had been quietly moved to the living room still, we were really surprised.

For her 40th birthday, 40 individual small happy birthday cards were taped to our back door, all from mom’s best friend to her complete astonishment. Not to be outdone, 40 individual thank you cards were clipped to the bush by the friend’s back door, who was flabbergasted.

One Tuesday, when one of mom’s best friends was coming over for coffee all three sets of 12 settings of china/dishware were missing; they could find a cup to drink anything out of, they couldn’t believe it.

One day after school I got to the school parking lot, my blue Chevrolet Impala was missing, I was completely shocked; I caught a ride home when I got there ~ there it sat; for a second time, I was completely shocked.

A dozen rose stems were to be delivered for mothers’ day, she wasn’t home, she never expected them, but wasn’t in near as much shock as the prim and proper neighbor who had to deliver them.

At midnight one April 1st a gruesome groaning emerged from the 20-foot-high atrium in my parents’ front entry; while investigating they came upon a 12-foot-tall knight; my folks were astounded.

We enjoyed April Fools day, no matter what date someone decided it may be on. All the surprises were followed by uproarious laughter, and we still enjoy reliving the stories. The only criteria limiting our imagination was trying to gauge the response of the person to be surprised. I grew up with surprises This morning’s gospel continues the Gospel surprises.

Jesus giving a loud cry and breathing his last (Mark 15:37) was a surprise. All his followers, hiding in the dark corners still expected the Messiah to prevail, no one sees Jesus’ death coming. The Centurion overseeing the soldiers, completely used to crucifying Rome’s troublesome people, is so taken aback he says Truly this man was God’s Son! (Mark 15:39). The Temple authorities and priests, cleaning up after Jesus tirade, are smug in their knowledge that the upstart rabbi will die and would no longer disrupt their carefully crafted ways. The darkness covering the land catches their attention, the moment of deepest darkness, when the earth shakes so hard that rocks shatter, and tombs spill their dead startles them. The wondrously embroidered great curtain of the Temple being torn, ripped in two, from top to bottom, completely shocks them (Mark 15:38, Matthew 27:51, Luke 23:44).

Early morning of the day following next Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome go to Jesus’ tomb to anoint him. Joseph of Arimathea had gotten Jesus’ body from Pilate, wrapped in a linen cloth, and placed in a rock hewn tomb; but he had not anointed Jesus (Mark 15:43). They were determined to give Jesus a proper burial anointing. They know the door of the tomb is sealed with a great stone and wonder who will move it for them. The women are astonished when on their second look they see that the stone has already been moved; yes, this is unexpected; but now they wonder what other surprise awaits them (Logue)? Entering the tomb, surprise! the women meet a white clad angel who reassures them saying

… you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. … 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.” (Mark 16:6-7).

His words stagger them. They are amazed and terrified. They flee. They say nothing to anyone. Here ends the Gospel.

Really, here is where Mark’s Gospel ends. Yes, when you look in you in your bible, you will see “The shorter ending” and “The Longer ending” that includes appearances, and a commissioning. But, they are not in the earliest copies of Mark’s Gospel. They have been added at some later date. Apparently, someone believed it is not right to end the gospel with us hanging in surprise. But why not? The empty tomb is a surprise.

Pontius Pilate, governor of the Roman Empire, representative of the empire and all of its power, the personification of politics is surprised. King Herod, who presided at one of Jesus’ trials, representative of a culture economic self-interest is astonished. The Chief Priest, representative of religious aristocracies is amazed. The Pharisees and Sadducees, the teachers and lawyers who rigidly guide daily life didn’t see that coming (Curry). I suspect they would walk through their memories, and may be their records, of Jesus to look for clues that explains this surprisingly empty tomb.

And that is exactly what Mark invites us to do. The angel tells the women to tell the disciples, specifically, Peter, to go to Galilee and Jesus will meet them there. After introducing us to John the Baptist, in verse 9 of chapter 1 Mark writes In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee (Mark 1:9). By the angel’s words, Mark invites us to go back to the beginning and re-read the Gospel story, knowing the ending, and look for the clues that reveal what’s happening (Jacobson, Lewis, and Skinner; Black; Hoezee).

The disciples lack of faith during the storms at sea, Peter’s inappropriate response to the transfiguration, Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s denials, the disciples’ desertion, all are driven by fear, isolate them from Jesus (Perkins).

Reading these, and all the gospel stories through the wisdom of the empty tombs reveals that

fear does not have the last word
hatred does not have the last word
violence does not have the last word
bigotry does not have the last word
greed does not have the last word
sin and evil do not have the last word
even death does not have the last word;
the last word is God, and God is love (Curry).

Reading the gospel through the wisdom of the empty tomb teaches us that the Resurrection matters (Lewis), and that there are no resurrection-free zones or times (Epperly).

Reading the gospel through the wisdom of the empty tomb confirms the truth of the curtain laying shredded on the Temple floor. The barriers between God and humanity are ripped asunder; the spirit of God is on the loose (Ruge-Jones); God’s love is no longer contained in a temple;

[God’s love] can go anywhere and reach anyone.
Even those who are different from us.
Even those who don’t deserve it.
Even those who don’t believe.

God’s love now permeates the whole universe and continually pulls us from death into life, with each breath we take, from the beginning of time until the end (Cox).

Reading the gospel through the wisdom of the empty tomb confirms that resurrection is not limited to our future but invades our daily lives right now (Lewis).

Reading the gospel through the wisdom of the empty tomb highlights God’s shattering all human expectations, all of our expectations (Black).

Reading the Gospel through the wisdom of the empty tomb, reminds us that no matter how different tonight is, that no matter how dark the abyss, no matter how stripped of all worth we may feel, we are always more than dust and breath, we are God’s creation lovingly made in God’s image.

Reading the Gospel through the wisdom of the empty tomb assures us that more than waiting for you, God/Jesus is with you right here, right now and always will be, even when, especially when, you are terrified, and dare not speak to anyone.

Reading the Gospel through the wisdom of the empty tomb draws the Hallelujah from our hearts (Cohen).

Hallelujah He IS risen!

(congregation)The Lord is risen indeed, Halleluiah!


References

Black, C. Clifton. Commentary on Mark 16:1-8. 1 4 2018.

Cohen, Leonard. “Halleluiah.” Various Positions. Columbia, December 1984.

Cox, Jason. “Sacrifice, Sunday of the Passion:.” 25 3 2018. Sermons that Work.

Curry, Michael B. “Presiding Bishop Curry: Easter 2018 Message from the Holy Land.” 26 3 2018. episcopalchurch.org. <https://www.episcopalchurch.org/posts/publicaffairs/presiding-bishop-curry-easter-2018-message-holy-land&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 1 4 2018. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel Mark 16:1-8. 1 4 2018.

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 1 4 2018.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Lewis, Karoline. Resurrection Matters. 1 4 2018. <workingpreacher.org>.

Logue, Frank. Look Again, Easter (B). 1 4 2018. <http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/&gt;.

Perkins, Pheme. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Mark. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Bel and the Dragon. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols.

Roth, Diane. “April 1, Easter Sunday .” 5 3 2018. christiancentury.org. <christiancentury.org/article/living-word/april-1-easter-sunday-mark-161-8>.

Ruge-Jones, Philip. Commentary on Mark 14:1-15:47. 25 3 2018. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Thomas Nelson. The Chronological Study Bible NIV. Nashville: HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc. (NIV Chronological Study Bible) Genesis 1:1, 2014. OliveTreeapp.

Townes, Miles. “When Easter Sunday falls on April Fools’ Day.” 21 2 2018. christiancentury.org. <https://www.christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/when-easter-sunday-falls-april-fools-day&gt;.

 

 

 

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Not Seeing the Surprise

A sermon for Maundy Thursday: Exodus 12:14, (51-0), 11-14, Psalm 116:1, 10-17, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-17, 31b-35

 

When you that hear Jesus and the disciples are at the Passover or the Last Supper what image pops into your head? I bet you it is Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. No question it is a magnificent painting. But I’ve read three articles this week, which started me wondering if Leonardo, and we, have the correct image. In the painting, things seem very formal. There is lots of conversation, but not much fellowship. In the Gospels, there are details about setting up for the Passover meal, but little about the meal itself. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke the action takes place in the context of the meal. As we just heard, in John, everything happens before the meal begins. But what is the Passover meal? Yes, we know its origins are in God’s instructions to Moses for an everlasting ritual of remembrance as Israel is about to embark on their Exodus journey. But what Exodus describes, doesn’t fit da Vinci’s picture. So, what’s up?

Leonardo_da_Vinci_-_Last_Supper

It is likely da Vinci’s painting is of a Seder Supper, which is part of the 7 day Passover celebration. A Seder is a celebration, even if it is a very scripted meal. In the middle of the meal, the youngest able child asks four questions why do we only eat matzah bread tonight? why do we only eat bitter herbs tonight? why do we dip food in water twice? why do we eat reclining tonight? The answers connect the family to the Exodus story. we eat matzah because our ancestors could not wait for bread to rise when they were fleeing slavery in Egypt we eat only bitter herbs, to remind us of the bitterness of slavery the first dipping symbolizes replacing our tears with gratitude, and the second symbolizes the sweetening of our burden of bitterness and suffering we recline because a person who reclined at a meal was a free person (Wikipedia). The Q & A gives us a sense of what God wants Israel to remember, but not a sense of the feeling to the meal. The three articles did.

The first was about Israel closing Jewish entry to Red Sea resorts because of a terrorist threat. It is a reasonable action. The learning is that people go to a resort to celebrate Passover; it is a holiday. The second article was about stories of the youngest child asking the 4 questions and family support and good times that the families enjoyed. The last article was about festive foods for the remaining of the 7 days of Passover; the pictures were tempting. It all sounds as if Passover and Seder are much closer to holiday and holiday meals. I was thinking about Christmas and Easter holidays and those fantastic feasts. I believe the disciples are expecting a festive, celebratory meal that celebrates Israel’s freedom from slavery. It is not what happens on this night.

All four gospels are something like an Agatha Christie murder mystery. A family is in middle of a festive grand meal when someone makes a surprise announcement. Sometimes it is an unexpected marriage or engagement; other times the announcement is of some business decision or an overseas adventure. In every case people leaving in an angry huff; and occasionally amidst threats, it is an Agatha Christie story. No matter the announcement, it is a real bummer that kills the festive mood.

In Matthew and Mark, during the meal, Jesus tells them that one of them will betray him. That will break a festive spirit. Later he breaks bread, then blesses bread and wine to be his body and blood of the new covenant. We celebrate this as the institution the Eucharist. I don’t think the disciples are celebrating; they are more likely thinking What! Luke puts Judas’ decision to betray Jesus before the Passover meal, so, we don’t know what the disciples know. However, we do know Jesus includes a woe to the one who will betray him. That has got the disciples wondering about each other, and maybe about themselves. John has Jesus start washing the disciples’ feet before the meal ever gets started. Right time; wrong action. Then he goes on say: you should do for each other what I have done for you (John 13:15); and a little later this is how others will know that you are my disciples (John 13:34). None of these scenes are celebratory. Everyone is wondering who is going to betray Jesus? and hoping it is not them. Everyone is wondering about Jesus giving them his body and blood to eat and drink to give them new life. We get it, but we have had 2 thousand years to come to terms with it, and they were not all easy years. Think about hearing this for the first time, without any kind of preparation or notice, in the middle of a celebration dinner. Surprise!

Everyone is surprised. Jesus is dashing any dreams of grandeur or imperial station. Everyone is wondering how to be a servant and do I really want to wash my colleagues’ feet? Think about the hesitation you experienced when having your feet washed was first introduced.

I am beginning to wonder if 2000 years of tradition, with all its wonderful artwork, inspirational music, and ancient liturgy have taken an unintended toll. It was about 1500 years from Israel’s exodus to Jesus’ last Passover Seder. It is just short of 2000 years since then. Where is the surprise? Where is the shock? Where is Jesus turning it all upside down?

He is still here. We have just gotten good at not seeing. The Gospel stories are framed by the twin forces of internal and external oppression. Though in different forms the same is true for us. As blessed as my family and I are there are internal forces, some government, some social or community, some financial, some family, that from time to time are oppressive or at the least constraining. I’d shed them if I could. As blessed as we are as a country there are external forces, some economic, some violent, that have a restrictive feel. If your family is of recent foreign national origins, those forces may really be oppressive. We are enraged by babies killed by deadly gas. Some are enraged by action to stop that, as the same officials ignore babies from the same country that drown as their parents are trying to get them to safety. Just the passage of time, and the emergence of new generations’ coming to power with their own devices and desires that are not ours, sometimes pushes too hard. We are every bit as surprised, as the disciples were. Just not at the dinner table, and not as much by internal expectations as by external disruptions.

However, Jesus still teaches us to be servants and to love despicable aliens, and the threatening ‘thems’; if in no other way than by loving each other as examples.

And we can love each other in how we live into humanity’s first calling to till and keep the garden/ the earth (Gen 2:15) which today is caring for all creation not consuming it out of the desires of our hearts or the profits we seek.

We can love each other by walking humbly, loving kindness and doing justice, (Micha 6:8). We can love each other by leaving vengeance to God (Deut. 32:35, Romans 12:19) not to powers of the State that continually seeks favor (think votes) by proclaiming it is protecting lives by threatening lives, directly in executions, or indirectly through biased social – economic structures that oppress the poor, the widows, orphans and the aliens (Isaiah 1:17, Jeremiah 22:3, Zech 7:10, Interpreters’ Dict) We can love each other by learning to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defending the orphans, and pleading for the widow (Isaiah 1:17)

We can love each other in rendering true judgments, showing kindness to those of different persuasions than we are; in showing mercy to those we judge to be undeserving; by not oppressing those who live at the edge of existence, the alien, or the poor; whose work we often unknowingly depend on, (have you eaten this week?) and by not devising evil against one another (Zechariah 7:9-10).

We can love each other as we let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24). We can love each other by trusting the peace of God that is beyond our understanding yet leaves us mysteriously whole within ourselves and with one another both friend and stranger.


References

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Olivetree. Olivetree Cross Reference. n.d.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Wikipedia. “wikipedia.org.” n.d. Passover Seder. 11 4 2017. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passover_Seder&gt;.