Invitation of the Empty Tomb

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Sermon for the Great Vigil of Easter (April 4, 2015) by the Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick, Rector. 

So that’s how the Gospel of Mark, the oldest of the four gospels, ends. Rather abruptly, wouldn’t you say? “So 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.” Your bible doubtless goes on with additional verses, later add-ons that provide more comfortable endings. Who can blame those old monks, eh? But all the oldest original manuscripts end this way. “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” No resurrection scene, no appearances of Jesus to call forth faith. And that last word: “afraid.”

Pause and consider how the events we have recollected and commemorated over the past week would have seemed if you didn’t know the ending. Consider. You join Jesus and others in Jerusalem for the annual Passover Feast and celebration. You are hopeful that the Messiah has come, that you will be saved from the Romans, the same way God through Moses liberated your ancestors out of Egypt. You too are fearful, for these are very fearful and oppressive times. And you watch in horror as events unfold, in a matter of a few days. Maybe you too are disappointed in Jesus. Maybe you are disappointed in yourself. How could it all have ended this way?

And there are the women. The women who stayed through it all, who were followers of Jesus. They stayed at the cross, after all the rest of his followers had fled. I once heard Bishop Curry preach on this text. He imagines a roll call at the cross. “Peter? absent! James? Absent! Andrew? Absent! Bartholomew? Absent? Mary Magdalene? Present and accounted for!”

And when the sun rises these women make their way to the tomb to make sure that Jesus’ body is anointed, treated honorably, as was Jewish custom. They are expecting nothing except his dead body. Instead find the massive, heavy stone rolled away and the tomb empty, and they are alarmed. That’s not hard to imagine. Their first thought may well be that Jesus’ body was stolen. The women disciples – after hearing the good news of Jesus’ death and being commissioned to go and tell – utterly fail, leaving in fear and saying nothing to anyone. And Mark proclaims his last word: afraid. What was Mark thinking, when he ends the gospel, the good news, like this?

We like hopeful endings, or at least tidy ones, and this certainly is not. And tonight, we’ve already proclaimed “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” We’ve been walking the way of the cross this week, remembering Christ’s passion and perhaps recalling our own darkness. I’m so ready for Easter. At times my life seems like it’s in a perpetual holding pattern, and maybe yours does too. This morning at Morning Prayer, Marti read this for us the offering from Forward Day by Day for Holy Saturday: “The truth is, we often live in between times, when the old has died but the new has yet to come. We are between jobs or homes … We await a diagnosis or await a baby. There is a gap between where we are — physically, emotionally, spiritually– and where we want to be.”

So let’s look again at the Gospel of Mark, starting with the assumption that he knew what he was doing. Recall from our previous readings that those who are closest to Jesus and should tell others about him often don’t. So the disciples hear Jesus predict his passion three times and regularly end up dazed, confused, and arguing about who is the greatest. Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah but completely misunderstands what that means and actually rebukes Jesus. Again and again those who should understand just don’t understand what is going on and so fail to share the good news. They are so human. They dive right in in the beginning, giving up everything to follow Jesus. And then the fumble and stumble and compete for who is the greatest. They fall asleep when he needs them most. And then those are those — shall we say rather unreliable — witnesses, who do understand what’s going on and perceive who Jesus is. Like the demons that Jesus casts out of people, who immediately recognize Jesus. And the Roman Centurion, having just put Jesus to death, acknowledges him as the Son of God. Who’s going to listen to any of those guys?

The good news of the Gospel is not the courage and heroism of others. We can’t rest easy that the disciples have done it before us, so we raise them up as saints, say “Good for them”! “you go, girl!” and can go on about our lives satisfied that we chose the right side. That is not Mark’s purpose. For you see, Mark has been there, like us. The community of Mark were followers of Jesus, and knew what it was like to try to hold on to faith, to try to trust in God in the face of life’s trials, pain, fears, conflicts and plain old cluelessness. They knew they too failed God, denied God, betrayed God, ran away from God, slept when God needed them to be awake, regularly and often. They knew we would too. And they knew what they most want to proclaim, that God was with them through all of it.

Yesterday, after the Ecumenical Service of 7 Last Words at St. James’ Mill Creek, I drove into Wilmington to join in the Urban Way of the Cross organized by the Church of Saints Andrew and Matthew. The theme of the Urban Way of the Cross was “I am my brother’s keeper.” With the help of the police they had planned a route that took them to some of the hottest locations in the City within walking distance from the church. They would stop at each station, say prayers written for this occasion, and then the SsAM choir sang a spiritual. They began at the Hicks Center. I was late, so I parked in the SsAM parking lot, and after texting my colleague, walked the several blocks from 8th and Shipley up to Madison. I was a bit uneasy walking that stretch. It was a grey day, I wasn’t entirely clear where I was going. I was out of my neighborhood. I got to Madison, looked up and down, no sign of them. I walked west, came to the Hicks Center. No sign.

I must have looked bewildered because a gentleman stopped his car, rolled down his window and said “they are on 5th street.” I walked another block and to my great relief saw a large crowd of perhaps 50 people, some carrying crosses and signs. I joined at the 4th Station, “Jesus Meets his Mother,” I heard the end of the prayer for childless mothers devastated by the needless violent loss of their daughters and sons. And then we sang “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.” The next to last station, the crucifixion, was at 7th and Washington. 7th and Washington had been the location of a shooting just that morning, shortly after 10 a.m. The last I heard the victim is still in critical condition. Our prayer was, in part, “Holy Jesus, Holy Son, Holy Brother, the hammering, my Lord, the hammering, it reverberates in my ears, in my heart, in my soul.  How can humans created by God do such things to one another? Jesus, show us the way to care for those who do despicable acts, to love them back into your Kingdom as you did from your cross. Never let us ever forget that we are our enemy’s keeper. Jesus, Bearer of my sins, never ever let me forget I am my Brother’s Keeper.”

Mark’s gospel is a beginning, a preparation, an acknowledgment of a world of violence and injustice, knowing that we too will stumble, that we will doubt, and that if we open our eyes to it, again and again we will encounter the miracle of God’s faithfulness. The open ending is our invitation to enter a gospel life, to walk the way of discipleship in a world that desperately needs the good news of God’s love for all, and God’s saving grace. The good news that there is no place that is too dark for the light of Christ, no place beyond hope, no place where there cannot be reconciliation and healing.

The story of what God is doing in and through Jesus isn’t over at the empty tomb. It’s only just getting started. Resurrection isn’t a conclusion, it’s an invitation. And Jesus’ triumph over death, sin, and hate isn’t what Mark’s Gospel is all about. Rather, Mark’s Gospel is all about setting us up to live resurrection lives and continue the story of God’s redemption of the world.

It’s only the beginning, God’s not done yet.  We have our part to play. Mark is inviting us to get out of our seats and into the game, where God is already at work, sharing the good news of Jesus’ complete identification with those who suffer and his triumph over injustice and death with everyone we meet. It’s only the beginning, it is unfolding before our eyes and in our lives. We are empowered and equipped to work for the good in all situations because we trust God’s promises that God is bringing all things to God’s good purposes. That’s good news indeed. AMEN.