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The Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston The Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston

The Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston is senior pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, NY.

Member of:

Presbyterian Church (USA)

Representative of:

Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York, NY


Deadly Things

Mark 16:1-8

Easter - Year B

April 12, 2009

Easter begins with fear.  At least that's the way Mark tells it.  It's not that Easter begins with wild panic--no, not that.  Easter begins with the kind of fear that feels a lot like heart-break.  It begins with the twist in your stomach that comes when the phone rings and you hear the voice of your sister.  "Are you sitting down?" she asks--that kind of fear.  

Early in the morning, three women approach the tomb bearing precious herbs and oils to wash the body of their Lord.  They have come to comb out Jesus' hair, to sponge away the dried blood, to massage precious myrrh into his skin.  They hope to engage in the ritual act (the act of care) that is traditionally done before sealing a body in the tomb.  They have come to anoint the crucified one.  Yet, even as they discuss how they will gain access to the cave (after all, it is closed by a massive boulder), they find that the stone has been rolled away.  The tomb is empty--vacant, except for some young guy who is definitely not Jesus; and suddenly, they are afraid.  They fear that their last chance to pour a little compassion on the broken body of Jesus has escaped.  They fear that they are witnessing the final insult of this whole horrible affair. First, Jesus' life is stolen, and now, even his body has been taken.  And, perhaps, they also fear... no, they simply must fear that death has won.  Death, the ever-ravenous monster, has finally, and utterly, swallowed up their beloved friend.

In recent weeks, I have been reading a powerful book of poetry by Louise Glück, entitled Averno.  The title Averno takes its name from a crater lake in southern Italy that during the time of ancient Rome was thought to be the entrance to the underworld.  In one of Glück's most haunting poems in this collection, called October, she contemplates the season of autumn and the gradual, day-by-day dimming of light that goes along with that time of the year.  Her poem is about cold winds and changing leaves, but is also, of course, about us, for we cannot escape the eventual fading of the light.  In stark terms, she writes, "You will not be spared, nor will what you love be spared."  When I first read those words, I had a physical reaction to them.  A sharp pain squeezed my forehead, and I began to weep.  I wept because these words are undeniably true, and I wept because I hate their truth.  Sure, there are times when I grapple with the fact of my own mortality, but I don't ever want to be told that the people who I love will not be spared.  Don't tell me that they won't survive this life--not one of them.  I imagine that the sight of the empty tomb hit the three visiting women like that...what you love will not be spared.

On Maundy Thursday, we had a worship service at my church in the evening.  We celebrated the Lord's Supper, breaking the bread and sharing the cup.  We listened to readings from the Passion story in the Gospel of Luke.  As each reading was completed, a cantor sung a response, and the acolyte extinguished one of seven candles that sat in a fixture on the chancel.  After the final reading, she removed the last burning candle from the sanctuary, and we sat in silent darkness.  We sat in darkness waiting for the strepitus.  Strepitus is the Latin word for a loud noise.  We make this loud noise in worship to signal the trembling of the earth and the shattering of stones at the moment of Jesus' death.  In some churches, the strepitus is created when the pastor slams the Bible shut with a bang after the last reading.  In Eastern Orthodox sanctuaries, the whole congregation gets involved in making the strepitus by pounding on the backs of the pews with their fists--stomping and clattering away.  We use a gong.  It does the trick just fine.  Year after year I sit in the darkness on Maundy Thursday knowing that someone in the balcony is about to strike that gong.  I know it is coming.  I know that it will be loud.  Yet, no matter how hard I grip the arms of my chair, it makes me jump.  Every year, it makes me jump.  

Easter begins with fear.  Sensing the distress of the three women, the young man robed in white offers some surprising news as a comfort to them.  "Do not be alarmed," he says, "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.  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."  This is, of course, the Easter proclamation.  He has been raised; he is not here.  This is the hopeful message that we have been waiting for.  The stone is rolled back.  The tomb is empty, not because further damage has been done to Christ's body, but because there are some things that even the monstrous power of death cannot digest.  This is holy comfort at its best.  So why are the women still afraid?  After hearing the young man's pronouncement, Mark tells us that the two Mary's and Salome "fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid."  

What were they afraid of?  Did they fear that the message from the man in white was a lie?  Were they afraid that they were being duped by a Roman guard who was having a bit of sick fun at their expense?  Or was it something altogether different?  Were they afraid that the mind-bending report that they had just heard was true?  "He has been raised."  Now, how could that news stir up fear?  To answer, we might want to consider our own fears this Easter day.  Are we afraid (after the pageantry and the glorious music) that we will return to life unchanged--untouched?  Are we afraid that we will retire to an afternoon brunch among the azaleas without seeing God?  Are we really "afraid" that we will find the tomb empty?  Or are we afraid of the possibility, however slim we consider it to be, that God is out there and will meet us this day? Are we afraid that God is waiting for us?  Perhaps we should be.  

After all, if Jesus is waiting on-down-the-road in Galilee, you can bet that he has plans for us.  No doubt he will ask things of us, the same way he challenged the disciples--thoroughly mucking up their lives.  Uh oh.  Perhaps this is the morning that the living God will grab us by the scruff of our souls to propel us into some wild scheme.  Maybe this Jesus is like those people you encounter on sidewalks with clipboards and petitions to sign.  You there, yes you, I've got your name on my list, now march out into the world and make some kind of holy difference.  Maybe that's what scares us.  Surely we love Jesus; we go to church, at least once in a while.  Yet we really do not want God to mess with us, to make demands on us, to cost us anything.  Leave us politely alone--hands off our career plans and our politics--oh, and keep your nose out of our approach to doing business and our way of conducting relationships.  We want Jesus to stay where he belongs (a kindly figure who presides over the sweet dreams of children); we don't want him wandering around the countryside, tapping his foot--impatiently waiting for us to show up.  That sort of Jesus is more than enough to make a person afraid.  If he is not cold on the slab, if he is raised, well, then, to quote Flannery O'Connor, "He's thrown everything off balance!"  No wonder that Mark tells us that the women "fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them."

A lot of scholars think that this verse, this hasty departure from the empty tomb is the conclusion of Mark's Gospel.  It seems a funny way to end, doesn't it?  Is that any way to finish "the greatest story ever told"...with people running away in amazement and fear?  These same scholars believe that someone other than Mark added the final eleven verses of the Gospel at a later date--someone who felt like the story needed a post-script.  If that's true, then perhaps we should read on.  Maybe the postscript can answer some of these questions for us.  Listen to how it sounds when Jesus appears to the disciples.  In verse 15:

15 And Jesus said to them, "Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. 

16 The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. 

17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues;

18 they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.

Well, so much for answers.  The end of Mark gives us more questions.  These final verses take us to an alien place.  After the resurrection, it is a crazy-sounding Jesus who catches up with the disciples.  After berating them for their lack of faith, he predicts the sort of things that they will do in his name.  They will cast out demons.  They will speak in tongues.  They will hold venomous snakes in their hands.  They will drink poison.  And here's the kicker, they will not be harmed by any of these deadly things.  These are strange verses indeed--verses used by mountain evangelists to justify the practice of snake handling in worship--a practice now illegal in five states.  It is enough to make a person want to slap a disclaimer label on the cover of the Bible.  "Kids, the practices that you hear about in here, do not try them at home."  Do not handle rattlesnakes.  Do not drink poison.  Don't try any of this stuff.  What kind of loopy way to finish out a gospel is this?  Snakes and poison?  I mean, really!?  Any sane person ought to be afraid of such deadly things.

And maybe that's the Gospel's point.  New Testament scholar David Bartlett says that Mark's resurrection story is a story of courage.  I think he's right, although it scares me to admit it, for there is a fine line between foolish daring and holy courage.  What is it that we see in this text?  If it is courage, it is courage in the face of deadly stuff...snakes and poisons and things that we know can harm us.  It is crazy talk.  It is also Easter talk--it is the way that the Resurrected One talks smack to the monster of death.  "Hey you, yeah you, the toothy beast with a bottomless appetite.  I have been watching you.  You sit back and declare that in the end everything belongs to you.  You make your smug pronouncements and wait for us to crumble.  You wait for the snakes and the poisons, for the chemotherapies and the wars, and all the many hard things of life to wear us down.  You wait for us to be left with nothing but fear.  But, hear this, today we laugh at you.  On this day, we stare at your destructive powers and laugh, not because we expect to be spared in this life, but because we have hope...a trust that in the end the snakes and the poison doesn't win, fear doesn't win, even you, death, do not finally win.

At a recent church lunch, I sat down at a table where people were talking about their experience of the strepitus at the Maundy Thursday service.  We all began describing our uncontrollable desire to leap away at the sound of the gong.  Then my friend John starting talking about his experience.  He was attending the service for the first time with his fourteen year-old daughter, Mary Holmes, who has cerebral palsy.  At the sound of the gong, Mary Holmes looked up and then she started laughing.  "It wasn't nervous laughter," John said. "It was amused laughter.  I know that we were supposed to depart in silence," said John, "but she couldn't stop laughing."

Sometime today, my phone will ring--as it does every Easter.  A voice on the other end will say, "Jesus is on the loose," and then I will hear the click of the connection ending.  I know who it is.  I know the voice.  It is my roommate from seminary sharing his unique Easter greeting with me.

I don't pretend to know exactly why Mary Holmes was laughing at the strepitus.  I am not precisely sure what rationale my former roommate gives for placing his brief exhilarating calls on this day every year, but having spent the past week with Mark's Gospel, I am convinced that they both have the right response.  Let death thunder and clang and rage away.  We are Easter people by golly.  We are called to handle deadly things with courage.  We are called to poke fun at the monster who threatens us.  We are called to peer into the open tomb, and laughing, run as fast as we can toward Galilee where Jesus awaits.

Let us pray.

Most outlandish God, this Easter we ask that you would take away our fear of deadly things.  Give us courage to truly live and laughter, boisterous laughter, for the facing of our days.  In the name of the Resurrected One we pray.  Amen.

 


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