Readings: Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Mark 16:1-8, Heaven and Hell #523 (see below)
See also on Youtube at youtu.be/JILRiCoPkto
I love the gospel of Mark. There are plenty of reasons to love the other gospels; mystical John, compassionate Luke, steadfast Matthew. But there is something so direct about Mark. It is the shortest of the gospels and proceeds at a sustained clip, but I wouldn’t interpret that as being haphazard or leaving things out. Actually, every piece of the narrative is carefully constructed and ordered; there is not a single extraneous thing. It is all very intentional.
Including the end. The whole of the gospel of Mark actually ends right where our reading did: Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” End of the gospel. Now I don’t blame you if you are confused; your bible might actually continue for another page, but those last verses, where Jesus appears to the disciples and then is taken up to heaven, were added by a later author. The earliest copies of the gospel of Mark do not include that final part. And I kind of love that. Of course, I didn’t at first. When I first found out I was shocked, but it actually is completely the kind of thing the author of the gospel of Mark would do.
The gospel of Mark is acutely aware of how the reader is interacting with the story, so I’m not surprised that the author’s final act would be to invite the reader in. I watched a magic show on television recently where the magician, in the middle of the show, asked for someone in the audience to volunteer, who was willing to leave and come back to the performance on the next day. He then gave them a very thick notebook and an assignment to complete after they left. They were to go the first blank page in the notebook and write out how they thought the show would end. Then at the next show, they would read out to the next day’s audience what they wrote. Each time, with each person, their imagining of how the show would end would be incorporated into the show itself. Their story became a part of the ongoing story.
In a similar way, the gospel of Mark invites us in to finish the rest of the story ourselves. The author of Mark knew the women did eventually tell someone, as there is at least one epistle that relates the occurrence in a letter historically dated earlier than Mark. But he still chose to finish where he did for a narrative purpose: to collapse the distance between us, the reader, and the characters in the story, to place us in that story ourselves and ask us what we might do.
And you might remember that I have preached this before in a previous lectionary cycle. But this year, I think we might feel the significance of this story even more intently. Something really important was revealed to those women, something they did not expect to see.
Likewise, this past year, some really important things have been revealed to us all as well. A lot of what has been revealed will be deeply personal, of course, but some of it we also share. Some of it has been hard to see. For those of us with the privilege to have not noticed it before, we have now seen the full extent of racism and white supremacy in our country; we have seen the devastating consequences of people in power not telling the truth; we have seen the tension between individualism and the common good revealed by the pandemic. We have seen how vulnerable we and our systems are: lives and livelihoods lost, supply chains disrupted, neighbors in lines at the food banks, healthcare workers exhausted, people in the brink of eviction. We have seen our work/life boundary disappear, and the mental cost to isolation and constant change.
And we have also seen amazing things: We have seen the value of slowing down, the wonder of watching an azalea bloom before our very eyes, we have seen the levels of connection that can occur within families when we stay home, we have seen our communities stepping up for each other, businesses pivoting and adapting, the scientific community pulling off a most amazing feat, building upon years accumulated science to give us vaccines at a record speed. We have seen people rise up for justice and protecting the vulnerable, we have seen voting in unbelievable numbers, we have seen that we can still find humor in the most challenging of times, that we can still find connection without physical proximity.
During this time, things have been revealed to each of us that might not otherwise have been revealed. The tomb has been opened and surprising new realizations made known. We did not expect this. We did not ask for it. But now we have all this new knowledge, this new insight. Now what?
As we stand in the same space as those women, trembling, exhausted, bewildered, afraid, we are also called to ask ourselves: what responsibility do I have to what has been revealed to me? Just like these women, we are each being invited to step into our prophetic voice. This will mean different things to different people and situations, but what has been revealed will not be going away. It can be disregarded, ignored, forgotten, but it has been revealed nonetheless…and this is our work, our burden going forward, to figure out how to discharge that new responsibility, to write that next chapter in the gospel.
But, I don’t mean to imply that all there is to be found in Easter is responsibility and burden. While to do love the gospel of Mark for stopping so provocatively at such a human moment, we also know from the other gospels that it is not the end of the story. There is more coming. There will be wonder and amazement, there will be joy, there will be tears, there will be relief, there will be resolve as the leaders of a new movement settle in to the work that is before them.
For this is the gift of the resurrection: to know that the destination is joy. The empty tomb reveals an enormous potentiality, a glimpse into a universe of new beginnings. And sometimes our first reaction to that is fear. Change, even good change, is inherently scary.
But as we step into whatever new insight we have been given, we can know that God has promised resurrection as the ultimate outcome. Maybe it will take a while. Maybe it will take a lifetime, or several. But God has shown us what is possible, for us and for our world. God has affirmed what is to be. Therein lies the joy and the peace of Easter Sunday. It is just so simple. There will be new life. Always.
Faith is sometimes characterized in believing impossible or implausible things. But there is really only this one thing to believe in, at essence one thing that requires any faith at all. That God’s inherent presence in all of creation means that there is always the possibility of more life, more growth, more openness, more love. God became a person to show us this when we forgot.
We heard in our Swedenborg reading today about the divine design. Swedenborg writes further:
In the process of taking on a human manifestation, God followed his own divine design. …in the act of creating, God introduced his design into the universe as a whole and into each and every thing in it. Therefore in the universe and in all its parts God's omnipotence follows and works according to the laws of his own design. (1)
In the words of our theology, our God came into the world, assumed the human, and thereby saved and redeemed humankind. But this is not like saving from a flood or fire, pulling people up and out of an inherently broken world. Rather, it is a saving in and through the divine design of this world, connecting Godself ever more deeply with this world and with us, a coming alongside. Our Lord is risen, and that rising is the design. And while our Lord, as acknowledged in our reading “never does anything contrary to his design,” *we* sometimes do though. And God’s answer is not to withdraw but to double down, to unite what is human and what is divine in a way that reveals what has been true from the beginning.
Easter Sunday is not the triumph of God *over* creation, it is the revealing of the heart of creation, and therein lies the joy, therein lies the celebration, therein lies the peace. Amidst all the loss and the brokenness, and this year has shown us so much of that, the divine design endures, allowing us to hope. Not an illusive hope that promises nothing more than escape, but a grounded embedded hope that allows us to get to work, to use our prophetic voice in the here and now.
I love these women in Mark, I just want to hug them. Knowing that their hearts are the same as ours, filled with us much no as yes, filled with as much apprehension as joy, and more than enough confusion, and probably a large serving of inadequacy. But they *did* tell someone. They did find their prophetic voice. So will we all, through a trust in the wisdom of God’s Easter revealing.
(1) Emanuel Swedenborg, True Christianity #89
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever. 2 Let Israel say: “His love endures forever.”
14 The LORD is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation. 15 Shouts of joy and victory resound in the tents of the righteous: “The LORD’s right hand has done mighty things! 16 The LORD’s right hand is lifted high; the LORD’s right hand has done mighty things!” 17 I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the LORD has done. 18 The LORD has chastened me severely, but he has not given me over to death. 19 Open for me the gates of the righteous; I will enter and give thanks to the LORD. 20 This is the gate of the LORD through which the righteous may enter. 21 I will give you thanks, for you answered me; you have become my salvation. 22 The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; 23 the LORD has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes. 24 The LORD has done it this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad.
1 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3 and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” 4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 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 “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ ” 8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
Heaven and Hell #523
The Lord never does anything contrary to his design because he himself is the design. The divine truth that emanates from him is what establishes the design, and divine truths are the laws of the design by which the Lord is leading us. Saving people by unmediated mercy is contrary to the divine design, and anything contrary to the divine design is contrary to the divine nature.
The divine design is heaven for us. We have distorted it by living contrary to its laws, which are divine truths. The Lord brings us back into the design out of pure mercy, through the laws of the design; and to the extent that we are brought back, we accept heaven into ourselves. Whoever accepts heaven enters heaven.