So We Proclaim, So We Believe

Sermon: So We Proclaim, So We Believe

Texts: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Mark 16:1-8

Date: April 21, 2019 (Easter Sunday)

©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church

 

    Christ is Risen!  Christ is Risen, indeed!

    That’s one of the oldest and simplest liturgies in the long Christian tradition.  It’s a proclamation which we received, to use Paul’s language, and which we hand on to succeeding generations.  We hand it on, as Paul says, “as of first importance.”  It’s no trivial proclamation.  It’s at the heart of our faith.  “So we proclaim,” Paul says, “and so you have come to believe.” 

    He sounds so confident in that sentence; “so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.”  Yet in the very next paragraph he’s acknowledging that there was some skepticism in the Corinthian church.  “How can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” he asks.  The transition for ordinary folk from proclamation to belief is not automatic, it seems, when it’s something as awesome and incredible as someone being raised from the dead that is being proclaimed. 

    We see the same dynamic in the Easter story in the gospel of Mark—that the transition from proclamation to belief is not automatic for ordinary folk.  Mark is, in its oldest manuscripts, essentially unfinished.  Later writers added a shorter ending that tied it up with a bow, and a longer ending that harmonized this gospel with the others.  But most scholars agree that where we ended the gospel reading today, with the women fleeing from the empty tomb in terror and amazement, saying nothing to anyone, “for they were afraid,” is the authentic ending of Mark.  What are we to make of it? 

    There are a variety of theories about why Mark ended so abruptly.  A resource sheet from Bible study curriculum in my files suggests several options: The original ending was destroyed because it conflicted with the other gospels.  The ending was accidentally destroyed when the scroll was damaged or torn off.  The writer assumed everyone knew what happened and therefore it didn’t need to be written down.  The author was interrupted, or died, and never got a chance to finish it.  The author didn’t have any firsthand information about what happened next, and wrote only the facts known.[1] 

    Who knows?  Although we can’t know why the gospel ended suddenly this way, we can receive it as a gift that has been handed to us, this rough-edged, unfinished story.  One reason I receive it as a gift, just as it is, is that we can so easily identify with the women running from the empty tomb in astonishment and terror, rendered temporarily speechless.  We heard from three translations of their state as the gospel was being read, one of which added the word “trembling,” and the other which I found terrifically descriptive: “They staggered out of the tomb, awestruck, with their minds swirling. They ran to tell the disciples, but they were so afraid and deep in wonder, they said nothing to anyone.” [Mark 16:8, The Passion Translation] I don’t know about the pedigree of that translation but I appreciate the way the paraphrase emphasized the wonder and awe along with the fear.  Physically, deep wonder and fear can have similar bodily sensations; they are emotionally in the same neighborhood somehow.  Either terror or astonishment can set your mind swirling, and the two together add up to immense swirling.  Either awe or panic can render a person speechless or incoherent. 

    I have been listening to a book of essays by the brilliant African American writer James Baldwin and was captivated by a passage in his “Notes for a Hypothetical Novel” which mentions incoherence.  He writes about the difficulty of writing as an American when American identity is so elusive; “because I am an American writer my subject and my material inevitably has to be a handful of incoherent people in an incoherent country.”  Later he tries to spell out what he means by this underlying incoherence: “It’s a kind of incoherence that occurs, let us say, when I am frightened, I am absolutely frightened to death, and there’s something which is happening or is about to happen that I don’t want to face, or let us say, which is an even better example, that I have a friend who has just murdered his mother and put her in the closet and I know it, but we’re not going to talk about it.  Now this means very shortly since, after all, I know the corpse is in the closet, and he knows I know it, and we’re sitting around having a few drinks and trying to be buddy-buddy together, that very shortly we can’t talk about anything because we can’t talk about that. No matter what I say I might inadvertently stumble on this corpse.”[2]  I have been turning that image of a corpse in the closet over in my mind; as a side note, for me, it throws some light on why we find ongoing racial issues so difficult to discuss.  We know that our murderous colonial heritage is still impacting lives today, but we prefer not to talk about it; so then how can we talk about America at all since we can’t talk about that?  Keeping the corpses in the closet renders us practically speechless, incoherent. 

    Putting Baldwin’s words in conversation with the Easter story, I’ve been thinking about the women’s incoherence, their initial speechlessness, in a similar vein.  Their problem was not a corpse in the closeted space of the tomb, which is what they expected, but the opposite: “He has been raised; he is not here.”  Let’s not underestimate the profound existential shock the empty tomb triggers.  It is a much bigger problem, in many ways, than the expected corpse.  Because it changes everything.  If you can’t count on predictable old death, what can you count on?  The situation is no longer normal. Something is happening or is about to happen that they’re not sure they want to face.

 “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.”  Completely understandable.  The empty tomb is like the corpse in the closet you all know about—only it’s the corpse NOT in the closet they probably couldn’t find a way to talk about.  And if you can’t talk about that, pretty soon you can’t talk about anything.  No matter what you say you might inadvertently stumble on the promise of the risen Christ who has gone ahead of you to Galilee.  That is a magnificent and terrifying prospect.  Say nothing.

    The world view of these women, these disciples, blew wide open, rendering them temporarily speechless, like a blown blood vessel in a brain, a stroke, might render a person temporarily or permanently speechless.  While I was musing on this I found myself wondering whether anyone had written an account of the process of surviving the trauma of a stroke and recovering their speech.  I wondered if such an experience might have any correlation with the women’s experience, since clearly they did eventually recover their powers of speech and help found a church for whom Resurrection is of first importance.   I found a paper written by Ben de la Mare, a retired vicar in England that talked about his experience of suffering a stroke from a spiritual point of view.  He wrote about a kind of crossroads in the immediate aftermath of his stroke: “For it affects everything, especially that decision that has to be made: should life go on? During that shadow time when consciousness was allowed to return, I was dimly aware of a choice still to be made: ‘to live or not to live.’”[3]  Ben acknowledges that he was so miserable at moments in the wake of his stroke, facing so many changes and challenges, that he was tempted to let go and just die.  It was love for his community and theirs for him that kept him fighting for life. 

    The women at the tomb, rendered temporarily speechless in their terror and deep wonder, also had to make a choice about saying “Yes” to Life.  They had to enter into completely unknown territory in which a risen Christ had gone before them and called them to follow—marvelous and alarming. James Baldwin wraps some good words around this existential challenge: “Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one identity, the end of safety.”[4]  It is only when a person is able to deal with the loss of the world one has known that one is set free for higher dreams, greater things.  But make no mistake, the breakup of the world one has known is scary, even if one is attracted to a future promise.  To live into a new future without the old margins is an act of courageous, vigorous will. 

    Ben, the vicar who had the stroke, vaguely remembers deciding to live.  He doesn’t remember his first words, but they have been reported back to him by friends who asked him what they should tell his church.  Barely conscious, freshly having chosen life, mind swirling, he managed two words: “Indestructibly hopeful.” 

    Stirring words, don’t you think?  That’s what we sign up for as Easter people, as people of the Resurrection.  There’s great beauty, wonder and potential in being Indestructibly Hopeful. But it’s not necessarily an easy path.  It’s really so much simpler to be hopeless, cynical, apathetic, quite sure nothing will ever change. It’s more restful to make peace with current conditions than to work for transformation of self and society.  Indestructible Hope demands our choosing Life over and over, stepping into the unknown.

    An open future brings us to the edge of familiar patterns and margins time and time again as we pursue a living Christ who calls us to a better world, who calls us to a just and joyful future.   Another of James Baldwin’s essays says about someone who was not altogether on board with school integration in the 1950’s: “The new day a-coming was not for him.  I don’t think this fact made him bitter but I think it frightened him and made him sad; for the future is like heaven—everyone exalts it but no one wants to go there now.”[5] Following Jesus into a new day, building the Beloved Community is a concept we may exalt, but we might not be sure we want to go there now, if it means losing privileges and comforts we’re not sure we are ready to release, or breaking silences we’re accustomed to holding. 

“…And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  What a gift has been handed to us in the loose end of the gospel of Mark.  It truly meets us where we are, 21st century disciples.  Confronted by an empty tomb.  Amazed and terrified; trembling with fear and excitement.  Tempted to silence about the outrageous promise of a Risen Christ calling us into a radically open future where death is getting its comeuppance. It’s awkward, right?  How do rational, scientifically inclined, quietly religious folk who enjoy being socially acceptable talk about Resurrection?  But if we can’t talk about the empty tomb, about the Indestructible Hope that accompanies this truth that has been handed to us, perhaps we won’t be able to talk about anything of real importance, spiritually speaking. 

    If we have questions and doubts about Christ’s resurrection, I say just let them be.  Work around them as if you’re sharing a couch with a cat.  There’s room for both, room for faith and questions in our spiritual lives.  But as for the Indestructible Hope—well, that is of First Importance.  It’s essential that we make that Indestructible Hope that shines out of the story of an empty tomb the center of our lives, the light that pours out onto our path, the key to our identity as people of faith.  No matter what happens we look to an open future from which Christ calls.  We decide to follow Christ into new life, and agree to speak and act as signs of the Indestructible Hope at the center of our faith.  Listen to this poem titled Tender and Resilientby Soo Hyun Han Harris:

To be the hands, feet and heart of God

Requires you to close your eyes, take a deep, slow breath,

And open your eyes again, but wait!

You have to open them like you are waking up from a 100-year nap

You have to open them like you’ve been asleep all this time and now you are coming to

And everything is brand new

You truly haven’t seen anything like this before!

You have to look around with a wide-eyed wonder

As all the chatter of your dreams and strivings

The cacophony and the chaos and the nonsense, everything you think you know, and

Everything you think each thing is

Falls silent in the newness of being really awake.

To be the hands, feet and heart of God

You have to act like

The world was handed to you fresh today

And you had amnesia about despair and bitterness and dread

You forgot to expect disappointment and to anticipate failure

Yes, you have to be that foolish! The exact thing you were taught

You better not be

New and hopeful and expectant

And as tender and innocent

As the green shoot that insists on weaving its tendrils

Around cement

And so God lives[6]

 

Beloved, Christ is Risen!  Christ is Risen, indeed! So we proclaim, and so we have come to believe.        



[1] Seasons of the Spirit adult Bible study curriculum April 16, 2006

[2] Baldwin, James “Notes for a Hypothetical Novel” Baldwin: Collected Essays Toni Morrison, ed. Library Classics of the U.S., 1998, p. 227-28

[4] Baldwin, James “Faulkner and Desegregation” Baldwin: Collected Essays Toni Morrison, ed. Library Classics of the U.S., 1998, p. 209

[5] Baldwin, James “A Fly in Buttermilk” Baldwin: Collected Essays Toni Morrison, ed. Library Classics of the U.S., 1998, p. 188

[6] From Resipiscence 2019: A Lenten Devotional for Dismantling White Supremacy Vanisha Hasan and Nichola Torbett, ed.  (self-published; available at www.transformnetwork.org)

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