Empty Tombs and Open Futures

Easter

Sermon for Easter Sunday – April 4, 2021  

The reason I especially wanted there to be parts for readers in the gospels today is that I wanted to remind us that Easter is participatory, that we are included in this story. Easter is not just about a day long ago when something extraordinary happened; it’s also about today.

Years ago, I was talking with a colleague, who was bemoaning the difficulty of preaching anything new on Easter. “I mean,” he said, “how many ways can you say ‘Christ is risen’ year after year?” My answer back then was different from what it would be today. Back then I said we should preach, assuming there would be people in church that day who’d never heard the story. And while that might be true, today I’d say: tell the story and be sure to expand it beyond a one-time event in the past and even beyond a promise of life after death.

Not that those are minor details. The resurrection of Jesus was a cosmic event – whatever actually happened. We don’t know. As Marcus Borg asked, “If there were a video camera at the tomb for those three days, would it have recorded Jesus getting up and walking out of the tomb?”

It doesn’t do us any good to rely on the biblical witness, either, because as we can see very well from our gospel readings this morning, the biblical witnesses don’t agree – which is why I like to read from two gospels on Easter. Every year in the lectionary cycle, we get a choice. John’s version is assigned every year, with the others in a three-year rotation. If we took a survey, I’d expect to find that most people prefer John’s version, with its dramatic race of Peter and John to the empty tomb, the charming story of Mary mistaking Jesus for the gardener and then recognizing him after he calls her by her name, and then her climactic announcement of the resurrection to the other disciples. There is so much good sermon material there; why would we ever use any of the other versions?

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Honestly, most preachers I know don’t like to use Mark’s version, the one assigned for this year. Did you notice: there’s no Jesus? There’s someone telling the women what had happened, but no risen Christ. And the women take off running, because they’re scared senseless. What a contrast; two very different perspectives on the resurrection. In contrast to the approach of many Christians today, the early church was comfortable with diverse witnesses to Jesus’ birth and resurrection. So the differing stories aren’t a stumbling block, but a reminder that resurrection is ultimately indescribable. 

For example, many years ago, I got to go to the Passion Play in Oberammergau, Germany. This tradition began in 1633, when the villagers of Oberammergau, who had been suffering and dying from the plague (their pandemic), pledged to act out the story of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus once every ten years. The play is five hours long (there is a break in the middle). It’s pretty impressive except for, in my opinion, the resurrection scene at the end. There’s a lot of flashing light, but nothing that could be seen or known of what was happening. But, really, there’s no good way to depict whatever happened that morning. Each of our attempts, including those of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, ultimately fall short – at least in terms of historicity. But the message in all of the versions is the same: Christ comes to us in dire situations and rolls away the stone of hopelessness. Christ brings new possibilities, new ways, new life, even when we can see no possible pathway forward.

A colleague recently shared with me a question she was asked during her call process: if you were going to be stranded on a desert island and could have only one book of the Bible, which one would you take? My answer was the gospel of Mark because it was the first one written and, even though it lacks the details of the others, it’s undoubtedly one of the closest sources we have of the very first responses of the people who had encountered Jesus and had experienced that first Easter. 

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Now, if you look up the Easter story in your Bible, you may find that there is a resurrection account. Jesus does appear. Most Bibles do include these extra verses. Some put them after a paragraph break and a brief disclaimer. Some put them inside brackets or in a smaller font and in italics. But most scholars agree that this longer ending was a later addition – maybe by someone who was as uncomfortable as we are leaving off with Mary and the other women running away in fear.  

But the shorter version that we read is likely the original. That doesn’t take away the importance of the later stories, but if we ignore Mark’s version because it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of the others, we might miss a crucial point. Because Mark’s story is unfinished and all the details and questions are not resolved, we have to see that we get to be part of the story.

There’s a legend told about Mozart. There’s a version also told about Bach, but the point is the same (just like the gospels!). It’s said that every morning, Mozart’s father (some versions say his wife) would get him out of bed by going to the keyboard and playing a series of familiar chord changes. But they would intentionally leave off the last chord. The unresolved ending would drive Mozart to jump up, run to the keyboard, and play the final chord.

And that’s just what Mark has done – left off the last chord. He’s left his story unresolved, which means that we should be compelled to jump into the story to see how it plays out in our own lives. In Mark, the future is open. For us, that means that we can name the tombs that try to enclose us, and identify the places where the stone has been rolled away, where we can see the open futures for ourselves and others.

But make no mistake; resurrection life does not ignore the harsh realities of life. It takes the tomb and the time we sit in its darkness seriously. And there’s no time limit on tomb time or the time between an empty tomb and a totally resolved future. We’ve had to live with the fear and anxiety of the pandemic for over a year now. The future is looking brighter, but still unknown. We have begun to take the problems of racism more seriously, but as the trial of the police officer accused of killing George Floyd continues, we know we have a long way to go. 

And frankly it seems that we live more in a Good Friday world, in a Holy Saturday existence of uncertainty and waiting, of being entombed, not knowing how to move forward. This would seem to be a more realistic assessment of the human condition. 

However, today we come here to make an audacious claim: that assessment isn’t true; resurrection can still happen. There is a power beyond the tragedies, horrors, and all the everyday injustices. There is resurrection power that comes from the deep place where divine and human spirit intersect, where pathways of rebirth and renewal are created, where new hope, new energy, new life come to fruition – even in the midst of our life situations, in places where, with our limited vision, we might see only scarcity and impossibility. 

It sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?  Hope for our warring world, restoration of ruined environments, healing of broken relationships? After we log off and the ‘Alleluias’ are no longer ringing in our ears, will the possibility of resurrection power still ring true? How can we keep Easter every day – which is, after all, what we claim to do?  

In her poem called “Holy Saturday,” Joyce Rupp wrote in this excerpt:

Who urges us to sit still, to be patient
in the nurturing tomb of darkness,
to enter its enveloping silence
with assurance?

Where do we seek steady courage
when sadness, distress, confusion,
and flatness
wall us in with airless depression?

How do we wait with a balance
of acceptance and yearning,
relinquishment and action,
hesitation and confidence?

The stones that block our light,
whatever they might be,
let us stop shoving them aside.
Let them be.
Give ourselves to required gestation
before hope’s fresh air unseals the tomb.

Do not hurry the soul’s metamorphosis. 
Trust in the maturation of essential growth. 
Remain trustful, focus on the Risen One.
Breathe in the possibility of some new joy,
for it hides in this very moment,
readying itself to slip past the stone.

Sometimes, all we can do is trust that the future is still open, the stone will be rolled away, there will be light.

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I read a recent piece by Barbara Brown Taylor, in which she tells the story of Jacques Lusseyran, a blind French resistance fighter in World War II, who wrote a memoir called And There Was Light. When he was seven years old, he had an accident that left him completely and permanently blind. The doctors recommended sending him to a residential school for the blind, but his parents wanted him to stay in public school and learn to function in the seeing world. His father told him after the accident, “Always tell us when you discover something.” And he did live a life of discovery.

He wrote: “I had completely lost the sight of my eyes; I could not see the light of the world anymore. Yet the light was still there. Its source was not obliterated. I felt it gushing forth every moment and brimming over; I felt how it wanted to spread over the world. I had only to receive it.” He also wrote: “The source of light is not in the outer world. We believe that it is only because of a common delusion. The light dwells where life also dwells: within ourselves.”

Taylor says that when she first read this, she thought he was speaking spiritually or theologically, but as she continued to read, she realized he was talking about what he actually experienced. With practice, he had learned to attend so carefully to the world around him that he confounded his friends by describing things he couldn’t see with his eyes, and yet somehow, he could see them.

It sounds mystical, doesn’t it? But not so mysterious. We have spiritual senses. And if we use them, if we’re in touch with the light within, which is the living Christ, then no matter how bleak and dismal a situation may seem, the future is still open. The last chord has not been played.

The resurrection of Jesus on the first Easter and resurrection life for us every day means that no life-diminishing powers can extinguish the light that resides within us. This light, says the Gospel of John, is in all people and is there to enlighten every individual. It shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

That’s true for our world as well. We become so discouraged by the seeming intractability of the problems we see all around us. But one Easter Sunday, the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin, preaching at New York’s Riverside Church, reminded his congregation of their obligation to take the resurrection out of the realm of ancient mythand bring it to life: “It’s dark, the world’s at risk, there’s conflict, misunderstanding, poverty, racism, violence—but over here a group is working to do this, and over there a group working to do that, until it almost seemed like, despite the imperfections of the world, there might be a glimmer of hope—brought on by people just like us. By God’s grace, WE bring new life to the world.”

It’s our story, says the gospel according to Mark. The risen Christ is going on ahead of us. The final chord is yet to be played.

Amen.

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Mark 16:1–8

When the Sabbath was over, Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought perfumed oils so that they could anoint Jesus. Very early, just after sunrise on the first day of theweek, they came to the tomb. They were saying to one another, “Who will roll back the stone for us from the entrance to thetomb?” When they looked, they found that the huge stone had been rolled back.

On entering the tomb, they saw a young person sitting at the right, dressed in a white robe. They were very frightened, but the youth reassured them: “Do not be amazed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, the one who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. Now go and tell the disciples and Peter, ‘Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee, where you will seehim just as he told you.’”

They made their way out and fled from the tomb bewildered and trembling; but they said nothing toanyone, because they were so afraid.

John 20:1-18

Early in the morning on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb. She saw that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance, so she ran off to Simon Peter and the other disciple—the one Jesus loved—and told them, “The Rabbi has been taken fromthe tomb! We don’t know where they have put Jesus!”

At that, Peter and the other disciple started out toward the tomb. They were running side by side, but then the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He didn’t enter, but bent down to peer in and saw the linen wrappings lying on the ground. Then Simon Peter arrived and entered the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings on the ground, and saw the cloth that had covered Jesus’ head lying not with the wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the disciple who arrived first at the tomb went in. He saw and believed. As yet they did not understand the scripture that Jesus was to rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes.

Meanwhile, Mary stood weeping beside the tomb. Even as she wept, she stooped to peer inside, and there she saw two angels in dazzling robes. One was seated at the head and the other at the foot of the place where Jesus’ body had lain. 
They asked to her, “Why are you weeping?” 
She answered them, “Because they have taken away my Rabbi, and I don’t know where they have put the body.” 
No sooner had she said this than she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus. He asked her, “Why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?”
She supposed it was the gardener, so she said, “Please, if you are the one who carried Jesus away, tell me where you have laid the body, and I will take it away.” 
Jesus said to her, “Mary!” 
She turned to him and said, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). 
Jesus then said, “Don’t hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to Abba God. But go to the sisters and brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Abba and to your Abba, my God and your God.'” 

Mary of Magdala went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” Then she told them what the Savior had said to her.

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smstrouse

I've been the pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Burlingame, CA since February, 2020. I am a “proud member of the religious left” and an unapologetic progressive Christian. While I have been criticized by some as no longer being Christian and as a pastor for whom “anything goes,” I firmly reject those characterizations. I am most assuredly a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, as well as a seeker of the Cosmic Christ.  My preaching, teaching and worship leadership is based on sound theology and careful study. I would call myself a devotee of process theology with a Lutheran flavor. For two years I also served as the interim executive director of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio in San Francisco (http://interfaith-presidio.org) and served on the board for many years before that.  In 2005 I received my Doctorate in Ministry from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley in interfaith relationships. My book is The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves About INTERfaith Matters? I enjoy leading workshops and retreats on interfaith matters, as well as teaching seminarians how to think about pastoring in a multi-faith environment. I suppose I’m not everyone’s idea of the perfect Christian. But if you’re interested in exploring the questions of faith in the 21st century, drop me a line.

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