2021-04-07

Ordinary Easter, part 2


Mark is the earliest Gospel – written around 70 CE, say most scholars. It’s also the shortest gospel: at under 15,000 words, it’s less than two-thirds the length of the average of the other three gospels. There’s no miraculous birth in Mark – in fact, no birth story at all – and no doctrine of divine pre-existence. No Christmas story, and a truncated Easter story. It begins with Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist – and it ends, like this:
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.
And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.
They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”
When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.
As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.
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. 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.”
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. (NRSV)
The end. "They were afraid." That’s it. That’s the end of the whole Gospel of Mark. At least, let us say, the earliest and most reliable manuscripts of Mark end at that point: Women fleeing in fear from the empty tomb. Most scholars today believe this to be the original ending of Mark’s gospel. Statements from the early Church Fathers Eusebius and Jerome support that this is the original ending. Evidently, this didn’t feel like a satisfactory conclusion, so later manuscripts add a little more. But the original ended right there: “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid."

Silence and fear. That’s what we’re left with. That’s our Easter story. Silence and fear. Where’s the gospel – the good news – in that?

One scholar, Richard Burridge, argues that Mark’s picture of discipleship involves not knowing whether things will come right in the end. The way Mark’s Gospel ends certainly leaves open the question of whether it all comes right in the end. Burridge compares the ending of Mark to its beginning:
“Mark's narrative as we have it now ends as abruptly as it began. There was no introduction or background to Jesus' arrival, and none for his departure. No one knew where he came from; no one knows where he has gone; and not many understood him when he was here.”
Mark leaves us with silence and fear. Yet the very fact that he’s telling the story tells us that it didn’t end there. Someone broke that silence – the fact of the story lets us know – or there wouldn’t be the story.

I have spoken before of the women who courageously broke silence. First to lament, and in lamenting reclaim dignity and worthiness in the face of loss. And further to remember, to say a name, against all the shaming, fear, and humiliation that would bury it in silence. They broke silence to say his name, as we are today enjoined to say the names of George Floyd, Walter Scott, Breanna Taylor, Philando Castile, Eric Garner and all the others. There is a power to breaking silence, to saying their names.

Further, they broke silence to tell stories that represented that the hope found in this man lived on – stories to transcend fear and affirm community, stories to overcome violence by sustaining hope – stories to transform humiliation into the strength of connection and in so doing resurrect life from death.

Mark leaves us with silence and fear, yet he also leaves us knowing that the silence will be broken, that the fear will be overcome – for the fact that he’s telling the story tells us that the story, and the hope, does live on. And what is that hope? The three women encounter a “young man dressed in a white robe” who tells them Jesus has been raised. And that Jesus “is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.”

Galilee: the place on the margins of Israel where Jesus was born, began his ministry, and where the first 9 chapters of Mark’s gospel take place. In other words, to find your hope, go back to the beginning. And go back out to the margins. If Jerusalem, the capital, the urban center of Ancient Near East society, represents the center of what society deems important, then our renewal lies in going to the margins.

Mark’s gospel ends so abruptly. You are left to write the end of the story. Even ancient sources couldn’t resist writing an ending, but never mind their ending, patched in from snippets of Matthew and Luke. What’s your ending? From the fear that has silenced you, what is your path back to the beginning, back out to the margins of what society centers?

What will we do with our fear? Go to Galilee, says Mark. Return to where you came from, on the margins. There you will see Jesus – see your own Christ-Nature, your Buddha-nature, the Moses of your heart. There you will meet the others with whom you may join in the ongoing work of resurrection – of bringing forth new life.

I believe that you know what I’m talking about, and know it from experience. I’m not saying, do this thing that’s nothing like anything you’ve ever done before. I think you have had moments in your life where you did this: broke from what was silencing you, answered your fear, returned to Galilee and touched what we Unitarians call your inherent worth and dignity. You’ve taken action with others to rebuild your life – to build the life we share together -- after a loss or setback. You are not, I think, a complete stranger to the work of resurrection. You got this.

The invitation that is always open, and that Easter is an occasion for remembering, is to ask in what ways, now, and again, are you called back to where you came from to see – now, and again – your true self – and in what ways – now, and again – to take up the work of resurrection?

There may be personal resurrections for you. There is also the social and political rebuilding to be done – the collective liberation that is at the heart of the Passover story, and was the original hope of the Jesus movement.

The testimony of the George Floyd trial this week has made many of us acutely conscious of the fact that we’ve created a police force so insulated from accountability that officers can commit murder at will. It has reminded us of the many ways our society oppresses people of color – and thereby oppresses all of us. Whatever our race, we are all precluded from the Beloved Community for which our hearts yearn.

Building beloved community will require going to the margins – going out to the places where people are marginalized – and going back to our origins – the values of fair treatment, of radical hospitality, of loving all our neighbors as ourselves – the values we embody when we see our own Christ-nature, the love from which we came -- before our silence and our fear made us complicit with white supremacist assumptions and complacent in the emergence of today’s police departments.

Mark’s Gospel leaves you with silence and fear, leaving you to write the end of the story. What’s the continuation to the Gospel of Mark that you will write today? What’s the continuation that you will write . . . today?

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