Rev. Dr. Donna Giver-Johnston
April 1, 2018
Christ is risen. Alleluia! Amen. End of sermon. (sit down).....
How was your morning? Did someone get you with an April fools joke? Did you unknowingly pour salt in your coffee? Or sprinkle sugar on your eggs? Did you sit on a whoopie cushion, step on a rug with bubble wrap underneath, or find duct tape on the toilet paper holder with a note that said “Good luck?”
When I realized that Easter Sunday would fall on April Fools Day this year, I wondered, How could this happen? Well, according to Google, it has not happened that Easter Sunday fell on April Fool’s Day since 1956 and won’t happen again until 2029. How crazy! There is no foolin’ with Easter. There was no joke on that first Easter day long ago when Jesus rose from the dead, and gave us the gift of eternal life. It’s true. It’s the foundation of our faith. There’s nothing funny about that.
The story goes that three people died and as they were knocking on the Pearly Gates, Saint Peter said,
“I have one question, and if you get it right, you can come into heaven.
The question is: What is Easter?” The first person answered: “That’s the time of year when our whole family gets together and we eat turkey and watch football.”
Saint Peter rolled his eyes and moved onto the second person, “What is Easter?”
The second person said, “That’s when the jolly guy in the red suit comes down the chimney with presents.”
Saint Peter sighed and moved onto the third person, asking, “What is Easter?”
The last person answered, “That’s easy. It’s when Christ died and they put him in a tomb behind a stone.”
“That’s right!” exclaimed St. Peter. And just as he was about to open up the gates to heaven, the last person continued, “Then, once a year, we roll away the stone and Jesus comes out, and if he sees his shadow, we have six more weeks of winter.”
What is Easter? In the Gospel of Mark, we expect to find a straightforward account of the resurrection, no funny stuff. But what we find is surprising.
Early in the morning, three women went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body with spices. They were worried about how they would roll the heavy stone away from the entrance to the tomb, but when they got there, the stone was already moved! How could this happen?
They expected to find Jesus’ dead body, but instead found an angel telling them to not be afraid, that Jesus had risen from the dead and was not here. How could this happen?
The angel told them, “Go, tell his disciples to go to Galilee; there you will see Jesus.” The last verse of our Scripture lesson for today reads: 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. How could this happen?
The women were given a clear command--go and tell the disciples that Jesus rose from the dead and will see them in Galilee. But, they were afraid and so they said nothing to anyone. How could this happen? How could Mark end his gospel here? How could the story of Christ be heard if not told?
One Easter Sunday, a pastor asked an elder to read the Mark passage, Mark 16, verses 1-8. When the elder got to the end, she read verse 8, “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” She paused, and checked the verses in the bulletin, but could not believe that the story could end there...it must be some kind of a joke. And so she kept reading beyond the end of the gospel, into the next verses which read….”And the women reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told.” Then the Pastor rose from her chair, told the elder it was okay to stop there, we were just reading through verse 8 today. It was unsettling for the elder. How could this happen?
The elder is in good company. Although the original manuscript ends with verse 8--with the women saying nothing to anyone because they were afraid--other alternative endings have been added onto the gospel of Mark. Thinking it must have been a joke or an unfinished story, an unresolved chord or unanswered question, scholars throughout the years have finished it. Why?
They did not want the women to be frozen in fear. They did not want them to be failures. They did not want the the good news to go untold or the story to end on an unhappy note. They wanted all the loose ends tied up in a neat bow. And preachers throughout the ages have interpreted this passage to say to their church members: You finish the story! Add verses of your own! Make your own ending! Do what the women could not do! Say something to someone! Be triumphant! It all depends on you! You can do it! You can make it alright and live happily ever after.
But that’s not how real life is, is it? We all know what it feels like to be seized by terror; to be frozen in fear; to be unable to speak. We all have tasted the bitterness of failure and regret. We all have faced situations with faith stretched so thin you could see straight through to our soul. We all have had times when despair overshadowed our hope; when we lost our joy and forgot how to laugh. And in those times, we know that despite our best efforts, we cannot make everything all right. Truth is, we don’t know how things could happen they way they did, but they did and we can’t go back and undo them. We cannot erase all the hurts. We cannot heal our hurts. We cannot save ourselves. And so, just like Mark’s gospel account of the resurrection, our stories are left unfinished...
But that’s ok. In fact, that’s the whole point of Easter. It’s left to God to complete the story, to resolve the chord. It’s left to God to heal our hearts and save our souls. It’s left to God to transform our failure into faith.
And God did just that. On that first Easter, God called the women to the tomb. God rolled away the heavy stone. God rose Jesus from the dead. God sent the angel to tell the truth. And God stood with the women in their fearful silence. God finished the story…and gave birth to the church. And the God who raised Jesus from the dead can surely resurrect us and finish our story.
Early in my ministry, I did a funeral service for a teenage boy who died. It was May 11, I will never forget because it was my son’s birthday. I remember thinking it seemed like a cruel joke that on the day I was celebrating the life of my son, they would be grieving the death of their son. The parents were distraught and wondering, “How could this happen?” At the church we sang songs of the promise of resurrection. At the grave, we shed tears as we placed his body in the ground. As we walked away from the grave, his mother asked me: “Will our son rise from the dead and go to heaven? Do you believe in the promise of the resurrection? Do you really believe it’s true?” I need to know more than anything I’ve ever needed before.
I was silent, unsure of what to say, terror seized me and I was speechless, afraid to speak for fear I would say the wrong thing. And so I stood silent for what seemed like a long time (but was actually only a minute). I took a deep breath, whispered a prayer and then thankfully, these words were given to me to say: “Yes, I believe that your son will rise. Yes, I believe in the promise of the resurrection. Yes, I believe it is true. In fact, it’s the truest thing I know.”
What is Easter? God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life. That’s Easter!
Christ is risen. Alleluia! Amen. End of sermon. No foolin’. Thanks be to God!