by the Reverend Dr. Susan Veronica Rak – preached on 16 April 2017
Reading – a story from the Gospels – Mark 16: 1-8 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
16 When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6 But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; 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. 7 But 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.” 8 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.[a]
This particular gospel story ends the women left “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” But you know, they talked… the women, followers of their beloved teacher, how could they keep this news to themselves?
The two major Christian holy days we honor have important news to proclaim. Christmas is the story of birth, announced with a great light and noise in the heavens, with angels singing and the cries of amazed shepherds. Easter is the story of death. It is the story of betrayal, of gruesome agony, of waiting in ignorance, of an empty tomb. Every character in this story experiences some deep emptiness. No angels in their glory announcing this death and resurrection. There may be lots of action and noise on Good Friday but it all goes quiet on Saturday and Sunday morning. You would think there would be more singing of praises and alleluias to celebrate that Easter.
Yet the news of Easter is told in whispers, not in Hosannas. If anyone in the Gospel stories is looking for the risen Jesus, they are doing it surreptitiously. They’re sneaking about.Theologian and writer Frederick Buechner wrote:
It has always struck me as remarkable that when the writers of the four Gospels come to the most important part of the story they have to tell, they tell it in whispers. The part I mean, of course, is the part about the resurrection. According to the Gospels there was no choir of angels to proclaim it. There was no sudden explosion of light in the sky. Not a single soul was around to see it happen. Who found a first?
A few women… who later quietly tell the frightened and quarrelsome disciples. When they heard he was alive again, the disciples tended to dismiss it as too good to be true, and even when they finally saw him for themselves, they could not be sure. The way the Gospel writers tell it, in other words, Jesus came back from death not in a blaze of glory, but more like a candle flame in the dark, flickering first in this place, then in that place, then in no place at all.
I am guessing that many of us do not believe in the Resurrection of the physical body of Jesus. How would we ever know? Unitarian Universalist minister Daniel Budd described our situation pretty well when he joked about putting an ad in the local paper for their Easter service that said: “Join us. We’re not sure what happened.”
True that – we are not sure what happened, or if anything happened at all. But still, I have to think, all these thousands of years later, that something did happen. This is more than just a mash-up of Pagan imagination and Christian dogma.
Even if the gospels do not describe a factual occurrence or a scientifically provable phenomenon, there is something beyond dogma and creed that has allowed this story to resonate deep in our souls for centuries. Something primal and universal is being told here. Look at how the Gospel writers – the received four plus all the others, not a one of them eye-witnesses, mind you – chose to reveal this story. Rather than shout it from the hilltops, they opted for a more compelling way to describe an event that is fantastical, even for people who lived 2000 years ago. It was the most extraordinary thing they believed had ever happened, yet they speak of it in quiet, gentle words and images.
Whatever truth there is in the Easter story lies not in provable facts but in the deepest human longings the story represents. The Gospel writers are telling this story so quietly, and truthfully – if we are to take them at their word – they’re telling it so quietly that you have to lean close to be sure what they are saying. They tell it as softly as a secret, as something so precious, and holy, and fragile, and unbelievable, and true, that to tell it any other way would be somehow to dishonor it.
Important things are often like that. When I was a child, I was taught that the resurrection is further proof of Jesus’ divinity. But now, as a good child of the Enlightenment and as a Unitarian Universalist, I cannot buy that. Still, I wonder, what happened? It’s no joke – we really do not know. But we can still make some pretty good guesses. Theologians and popes and heretics and believers of every stripe have been making guesses for thousands of years.
And here’s one that makes sense to me… letting go of the need to know for sure what happened and seeing what in the story tells us something new. Twentieth-century theologian Henry Nelson Wieman was a Unitarian and put forth the notion that, in process theology, God, the divine, is not a noun, a thing, a being. God is a verb. A spark at work in the universe, a force that seeks to influence the direction of our choices without compromising our human freedom, always moving us to the “good”. And for Wieman, this creative life force, this “divinity” is revealed not in mighty displays of power or supernatural occurrences, but in “the interactions between us and among us, in the interactions between people and in the interactions between people and the rest of creation.”
These are the kinds if transformative experiences we are often seeking in this community. When open-minded and open-hearted people get together in groups designed to be transformative, something happens. Wieman called that something creative interchange.
So way back in seminary, when I read Wieman ’s theory about the resurrection, I felt I had come to some new revelation – for me the tomb was no longer empty and meaningless. But again, here is a story told in whispers. Unitarian Universalists tend to focus on the teachings of Jesus, and when we look at the story we find Jesus gathered with his followers, often engaged in deep and provocative and perhaps puzzling conversations. He urged them to think in new ways, defying the old categories,”to be merciful and compassionate and attentive to those on the margins of their society”.
Then perhaps the resurrection is not the bodily reconstitution of their teacher Jesus, but the new life that they began as a community.
The transformation happens in community. It is a quiet transformation, that happens slowly – maybe imperceptibly at first. All the things they always did together when Jesus was around took on a new meaning when they did them again without him… sitting down to a meal, performing the rituals of Jewish daily life, talking to one another. Doing it the way he had shown them without him there, they could feel he is living among them again, even though he is gone.
When Jesus was taken from them, or when they turned from him as the story goes, they might have thought it was all over. They fled, and hid from one another or perhaps from the authorities. The Rev. Meg Barnhouse described it thusly:
“But they can’t stay apart from each other. They need each other. And when they come back together, when they mourn together, they begin to feel like they did when Jesus was around. That’s what the resurrection means…”
What they had experienced in fellowship with Jesus, what they thought died when he was taken and killed, was still there – alive and at work inside each of them and revealed in their community. It’s as if they gained a new appreciation of their own best selves, and the possibility that this is what they could be, every day. It is almost as if “the man Jesus” is actually present, walking and talking with them. “But what rises from the dead,” Wieman says, “is not the man Jesus; it is the creative power” that Jesus embodies, and that they felt when they were with him.”
Something happened. Yes indeed… and it can happen for us, too!
This story is told and retold, year after year, season after season, day after day. It is the story of our own lives – how when despair overtakes us, when we are lost, we find hope. I can’t tell you how it happens, but it does. You know this, you’ve seen it happen, felt it yourself. We all love resurrection stories! They are how we remind ourselves about hope…nourishing hope to sustain us in our most feeble and fragile times.
The resurrection stories we hold on to are smaller, they may come to us more slowly. We hear them in the stories of people who survive debilitating physical or emotional diseases and disorders… when people experience desperately longed-for relief of mind and soul. In the stories of expectant parents and the stories of long-lost love found anew. These people know resurrection too. It is the experience of new life – often found in something less dramatic than any of those events.
The Easter story is our story – the story of coming to what appears to be a “dead end”, where there is no out, no useful scenario that might help us in our frustration, we discover a new path. It may be a path that was always there, but somehow, the stone is rolled away and the way is revealed.
And it is the story of how, when the inevitable happens and death touches our lives, we go on living. We remember our loses and out of the depth of our sorrow, are able to reconnect again with our own best selves. And we find joy again. New life and resurrections occur constantly; the gift of the resilience of the human spirit and its tenacious longing to be whole,and awake and fully connected – awake to beauty and joy even in the face of sorrow or loss. We learn this over and over again throughout our lives.
So maybe we are here this morning not to be glorified in the idea of salvation and redemption… but to be reminded of these resurrections, these great truths. To have them whispered in our ears, accompanied by a gentle nudge…we know the message, we’ve heard it before… and we know it is the most important message of our lives.
The message that life can emerge from death. The assurance that hope can be squeezed out of despair. The good news that joy will rise up again like the morning sun over the horizon of our sorrow.
I think that is why we gather on Easter morning. And when we leave here – then what? Perhaps it’s lunch or dinner with family and friends…or maybe nothing special – a quiet Sunday afternoon spent like every other Sunday afternoon. Yet there is something more we are all called to do. A celebration like Easter reminds us that we are called to carry out the story like the ancient writers suggested: in quiet whispers; in small acts of generosity and kindness; in finding life amidst all the death-dealing we see around us… or simply feeling that creative power that flows through us… finding grace in the grouchiest of moments; gentleness in the coarseness of life; hope in the bleakest hour; resilience in hours of trial.
Out of the darkness deep within earth comes new life. And yes, we are not sure what, if anything, happened in those ancient days, when what we call Easter came into being. But something did – and this we do know:
We are here. We are here, now, in this moment, right now. We have received life as a gift, and despite all things to the contrary, we believe the gift is good.
We are here and have come this day to celebrate this life and say thank you … to pause in gratitude for seasons that move us through the wheel of the year; for color and fragrance and greening new shoots that come again to remind us of this gift of life.
For teachers and prophets who throughout time call us to life – again and again.
For songs and music that stirs our souls, reenergizes our spirits.
For the hope we find in this community, where our sorrows may be eased and our joys doubly gladdened.
We are here and we are thankful for the gift of being together.
And as a sign of your gratitude and your hope, I invite you take a gladiolus bulb home with you after the Service, and plant it somewhere you can look for its green shoots and colorful bloom later in the summer. These bulbs contain the promise of a flower. How well any given bulb will take root, how tall the plant will be, whether it flowers or not, and what color the flower will be, remains – for now – a mystery. May it be a symbol to us of the hidden potential within each of us… possibility that waits, perhaps in the darkest recesses. Plant it, with the hope of beauty and grace to come.