Get Ye to Galilee: Sermon by Laura, 4.5.15, Easter Sunday B

Scripture: Mark 16:1-8

“Terror and amazement had seized them; they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” So ends Mark’s gospel. The Bible gives two other endings, but most scholars say they are not original to the earliest manuscripts.  And no wonder later readers thought Mark’s gospel needed help. What a disturbing way to finish! Not only is there no narrative closure but even the grammar is awkward. A more literal translation of the final words reads, “To no one anything they said; afraid they were for…” The gospel of Mark ends with a dangling preposition!

It’s also painfully minimalist. Matthew, Luke, and John’s resurrection accounts give us a little more to work with. There are earthquake-toppled guards, dazzling angels, heartfelt reunions, and joyful shouts of “He is risen.” Most importantly, in the other gospels, Jesus appears sooner or later! Where, in Mark, is the resurrected Jesus?

Mark’s strange ending seems inadequate. But maybe it’s just as the author intended. Maybe Mark is inviting us to wrestle through our distress toward a different kind of Easter joy.

Mark’s gospel puts us right beside those first Easter witnesses,  women who had witnessed the horror of Jesus’ suffering, death, and burial. They carry spices to the tomb in defeat, having lost not only a beloved leader and friend, but also the kingdom of God Jesus represented. Even their quest to properly bury Jesus’ corpse looks bleak, since they can’t imagine how they’ll move the enormous stone sealing the tomb.

They struggle to keep faith and fail, just like we do. If we’ve not yet experienced a season of failing faith, we surely will, when a loved one is dying, or a cherished relationship imploding; facing a dreaded diagnosis or a loss of livelihood.We often struggle simply as overwhelmed spectators to the horror of violence and suffering in our world.

And then, at the empty tomb, the stone rolled away, with the women, we are shocked and amazed, dangling between hope and fear, between disappointment and fulfillment. It’s a crisis of faith. If “dead things don’t stay dead,” anything is possible, the kingdom of God is alive after all!

But the women don’t see Jesus or hear him call their name. They must choose how they will respond, but they don’t get to touch the wounds in his hands. We don’t either.  Like them, we are trying to believe, but sometimes we need someone else to believe for us, to encourage us to enter the now wide-open future.

What they and we receive is a messenger, the white-robed young man. What a mysterious figure he is! There are numerous theories about him, but most scholars just assume he’s an angel. In scripture, divine messengers bring surprising news, saying, “Do not be afraid!” The white-robed youth does fit that bill. But Mark never calls him an angel. Why not? What is Mark up to?

Maybe Mark’s using his faithful imagination and his authorial license to a deeper purpose.

In 160 A.D., Justin Martyr wrote describing the early church’s worship practices. In his era of persecution and martyrdom, becoming a Christian was serious business: it took three years of preparation to become a Christian. On Easter morning, candidates for baptism went naked into the water, “dying with Christ.” Coming out of the waters, “rising with Christ,” they were covered with white robes, and they received the Lord’s Supper for the first time. Liturgical scholar Gordon Lathrop has suggested that Mark intended his ancient church readers to see a symbolic connection between this white-robed youth and such newly baptized Christians.

I like this idea. It works, because God’s time is not linear. God’s time moves in spirals, in and out, above and around the day-by-day pace of chronological time. So why not a time-traveling messenger from the not-yet-existent church, going “Back to the Future” to encourage the women at the empty tomb? How appropriate that a representative  of the unimaginable future points them toward their own “back to the future” journey: “Go…[for] he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

To go to Galilee is to return to the place the disciples first encountered Jesus, to go home to the place God’s kingdom reality broke into their world in Jesus’ healing and teaching, Jesus’ presence and purpose.

And how appropriate that this white-robed youth also travels to the future inviting us, today’s disciples, to return to Galilee. The story doesn’t end at Ch. 16. Turn the pages back to Ch. 1, where Mark’s readers first encounter Jesus: “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.” Read the story again, after the cross and the tomb, with post-resurrection eyes.

Soon you’ll see, the story doesn’t end at all! Easter is not the end but a new beginning;  the tomb is a birthplace from which new life ripples out in expanding spirals of God’s time. Mark’s story has become your story, our story, and the Risen Christ is faithful to his promises. He is out ahead of you in your daily life, and you will see him there, as you return to the roots of your discipleship, studying and praying, worshiping and being nourished in Christ’s body and blood.

Maybe that’s why you’ve come to church this morning. You’ve come home to Galilee, to encounter again the Risen Lord in this place, in these people, in your own heart as you hear the preposterous news again.  Friends, it’s hard to keep faith on our own. We need past, present, and future witnesses to encourage our faith through both death and resurrection. Today, we are sent to one another, like the white-robed youth, sent to every seemingly lifeless place in the world to share the Easter message. We are sent, on behalf of our sisters who could not speak to shout the news with joyful confidence. “He has been raised. He is not here. He is going ahead of you.”

Alleluia! Alleluia! Amen.

Notes: To the best of my recollection, I heard the suggestion from Gordon Lathrop came from a lecture or sermon at the “Walking Wet” conference at Austin Seminary in 2005.

I am also indebted to Anna Carter Florence, who I am quoting in the comment, “If dead things don’t stay dead…”

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Mary and the Gardener: Easter Meditation by Laura, 3.31.13

Texts: John 20:1-18, Isaiah 65:17-25

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark…” Those are the first words in the story of Resurrection morning. It could be that the narrator of John’s gospel only uses them to set the scene and move the story on to the next event. Truth be told, it’s astonishing that there is a next event, given the last we’ve heard of Jesus, he’s been crucified, died, and laid in a tomb.

But perhaps there’s also a deeper significance in these words. There is another “first day” in scripture, when God spoke a Word into the darkness that covered the face of the deep:“Let there be light.” And there was light. There was evening and there was morning, the very first day.

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark,” the Easter story begins, but this time the darkness is the formless void, the watery chaos, of grief and despair. It clings thick around Mary Magdalene, the first person to show up at the tomb, seeking to honor her beloved teacher’s body. And when Mary sees the stone removed from the tomb, the darkness seems even deeper, insult added to the awful injury of Jesus’ unjust and untimely death. In a pre-resurrection world, the only logical reason for the tomb to be open is grave robbery.[1]

In a panic, Mary runs to tell Peter and the beloved disciple, “They have taken the Lord!” Suddenly there is a lot more running, as the two men race back and forth to the tomb. But there is a stillness in Mary, who stays, weeping, after the disciples have investigated the tomb and the clothing lying around inside.  The beloved disciple “believed,” but we have to wonder, what? Neither he nor Peter has any clearer understanding of what happened in that place. They go back home, saying nothing.

Mary’s stillness is the paralysis of continuing shock and grief. When she finally peers into the tomb herself, even a conversation with angels has little impact. The tomb is still empty of any answers to the mystery. But someone outside in the garden speaks a word, so Mary turns to see who is speaking.

The narrator tells us it is Jesus, so we can smile that Mary thinks he’s the gardener. But then we realize Mary’s made a pretty good guess. The one standing before her certainly knows a few things about the ways of life and death, the cultivation of birth and growth, the mysteries of decay and restoration.[2] And we remember again, back through scripture, to another garden, a place where the first human beings created walked with God in the cool of the evening, before they were turned out for their disobedience. The “gardener” standing before Mary was there in the beginning, according to John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God…All things came into being through him. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

Jesus was with God at the beginning of all things, and now, in this garden outside an empty tomb, we have come to a new beginning. God’s Word spoken anew in the risen Christ, and a new world, a new life, and a new creation have now come into being.[3] Preacher Bruce Prewer likens it to the Big Bang, the scientific theory in which “all time and space began with one unimaginable explosion from a singular, infinitively small point.” “…This time,” he writes, “it was a massive explosion of love-life. Easter is Big Bang, mark II!” [4]

I don’t know about you, but my brain begins to stall out when I try to comprehend the first creation, let alone try to fathom resurrection’s radical reorientation of the cosmos! For that’s what’s happened, you know, and it should be unsettling to us. As one preacher put it, if dead things don’t stay dead, what can you count on?[5]

So I can understand why Mary still doesn’t get it. She just wants the gardener’s help in getting things back under control. If he would tell her where the missing body lies, she can get on with her grim task. It turns out that a special word is needed to break into the shuttered darkness of Mary’s heart and mind, a particular word, in which the cosmic and the intimate come crashing together: “Mary!” At the sound of her beloved teacher’s voice speaking her name, she turns around again into the dawning recognition of a whole new world. Jesus is fully alive and present before her.

But here’s the hard part of the story, for when Mary responds, “Rabbouni!” We can just see her longing to throw her arms around him with tearful relief and incredible joy there in the midst of the garden which seems, for a moment, like a return to Eden.

But Jesus says, “Do not hold onto me.” For resurrection is not a return to the dead past. Our Risen Lord will not be captured or contained by any previous experiences or expectations. We cannot return to Eden, because a new heaven and a new earth are coming into being. From the tiny point of the empty tomb, from the infinitely personal word of Mary’s name, of our names, called out by the Risen Savior, the new creation must expand out and spill from the garden, ripple by ripple, layer by layer, filling the universe with God’s newness.

And so we are, like Mary, sent out of the garden, but this time we do not go, weeping, but rejoicing, going to tell our brothers and sisters a new day has dawned. The Word made flesh in Jesus Christ lives among us still: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Hallelujah, Amen!


[1] Gail O’Day, Commentary on John in The Women’s Bible Commentary, 389.

[2] Jan L. Richardson, Garden of Hollows, 22.

[3] Lucy Lind Hogan, Commentary at Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=4/8/2012&tab=4

[4] Bruce Prewer, “The New Big Bang,” http://www.bruceprewer.com/DocC/C28eastd.htm