March 31, 2024

Series: March 2024

Speaker: Rob McClellan


Today's Sermon




Mark 16:1-8

            1When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6But 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. 7But 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.” 8So 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.


            I have to say even after all the preparation for today, when I reread the passage this week, part of me just wanted to let the story stand on its own. We have these marvelous accounts passed down to us.  The women go to anoint the body of their beloved teacher.  First they have to stop to buy spices—I never noticed that detail.  It’s funny how these details work their way in even to the most solemn of moments.  What were the prices of spices that day?  They were going to need someone to roll the stone away from the tomb so they could get in.  You half-expect to find them breaking down in tears trying to figure out the login information for Jesus’ accounts.  Practical matters don’t wait for our grief.  Our response to all of it ranges.

            Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary in New York and Professor for Religion and Democracy, writes,

There are two different postures of humanity with respect to who we are in relation to crucifixion and resurrection.  The first is a humanity that falls away from God, unable to bear the sight of God’s brokenness and the grief of human existence.  The second is a humanity that crawls toward him in the dark, reaching for his body, knowing that it is putrid, and in doing so, takes on the full weight of life’s intermittent but inevitable horrors.[1]

            The first is a falling away, pulling back because we can’t bear to look at the brokenness. When we do, we often find some of the heaviest of questions.  This church lost one its big presences in the last couple months, “Scotty” Auld.  Scotty would often speak of some tragedy in the world, some cruelty, and ask with equal measures fire and pain, “Where is God in that? Where is God?”  We’re going to visit the depths a bit before we’re raised up.

          Many of us were horrified when Hamas went into Israel, opened fire, took hostages and brutalized them.  Many of have also been horrified at the overwhelming response driven by the Israeli government’s fear history will repeat itself if Hamas isn’t destroyed.  There is a long, complicated, and painful history of the land from which we say Jesus rose, so much brokenness.

            Violence reigns in Haiti as we speak, people barricading their neighborhoods to try and ward off the gangs, this a country with its own history of outside interference, violence, and suffering.  So much brokenness, so much to grieve.

            And Ukraine, still Ukraine.  Then, just a week ago the capital of its invader, a country we call an adversary at best, endures a brutal attack on civilians at the theater.  So much brokenness, so much to grieve, so many reasons to fall away unable to bear the sight.

            These are the big things, far away, but they occupy the media we consume.  And, of course, there are matters nearer and more personal, in many ways bigger, in our own lives.  It is a lot.

            All of this makes the second response is rather remarkable, crawling toward the brokenness. Who does that?  As the bridge in Baltimore fell this week, we heard that familiar refrain of the responders who went toward the tragedy, to show up and be of help.  In Jones’ words, the women make their way through the dark to the tomb, to the body, “knowing that it is putrid.”[2] We do have experiences of people crawling toward the brokenness, moving near, showing up in the midst of the worst of it.  You know those people in your life, I pray.  You have been that person at some point I would bet.  Do you know that?

            We fall away and we crawl toward.  We run away from the tomb, or we go out and buy spices and move toward it even if it means grasping in the dark, even if it means crawling.  Jones goes on to say, “God comes to us in both places,” which is a comforting thought.  Then Jones says we are always both the “faithful mourners and lovers of God,” and “the faithless abandoners and killers of God.”[3]  That’s where it all breaks down for me.  Maybe she’s right.  There are plenty of examples of us turning our back on one another—I’ve just named some. Yet, this language of faithless abandoners, of God-killers, I don’t see its utility.  I do not accept that we are always both running to and from the tomb at the same time.  We actually can’t be.  If we are, we need a third option, and I think there is one, and it leads to any number of faithful postures.

            This is the way of neither or running nor crawling, but simply staying with.  What happened when they women got to the tomb?  They encounter a heavenly messenger—there are always messengers—who tells them the impossible news that the one for whom they are looking, the Christ, has left the tomb, the realm of death, and is on the move.  The women head off to join him, but notice only after, “terror and amazement had seizedthem” (Mk. 16:8).  They are seized with terror and amazement.  They are filled with awe.  It is an awe-full moment.  If we can allow ourselves to be seized by the moment, pulled totally into its presence, and stay with it, the way forward will present itself.

            We are, however, a move first, be second culture.  We are only worthwhile if we are moving, producing.  We are measured by the movement we create, yet so much of this movement is directionless in part because we have lost touch with the awe that could shape it if we let it in.  When we allow ourselves to stop and be with whatever is before us, really be with it, the required posture reveals itself – This is a moment to listen, to tend the wound of another.  This is a moment to stand my ground, not shirk from my truth, hold boundaries with love. This is a moment to assume a posture of solidarity.  This is a moment to accept responsibility and offer reparation and repair.  You can trust what will be revealed to you if you just learn the art of staying with what is before you.  That’s what Jesus asked of his disciples his last week, and they just couldn’t do it.  Stay with it. It’s beautiful, even when painful.   

            Look at this. Look at all of it.  Isn’t this incredible?  Isn’t this amazing?  Look outside. “Isn’t she lovely” to quote the “theologian” Stevie Wonder.  Wait, his name is “wonder.”  It doesn’t get any better!  We are busy running around, doing things that we have to do alongside things we probably shouldn’t.  My study looks out over Tiburon Boulevard, all day driving, motion, going, coming going. We skitter across this world so fast, I wonder if we have lost touch with it, fallen out of love with it. This is the world God loved, loves still.  Have you fallen out of love with the world?  The resurrection is God’s way of saying I don’t fall out of love with the world despite its brokenness.  And, this isn’t new from God.  We heard earlier the refrain in Psalm 118:  God’s steadfast love endures forever.  Over and over again.  Forever.

            With all due respect, we don’t fall back in love with the world slinking away from the brokenness, nor necessarily by crawling toward it.  The love comes from being with it.  Have you ever been with someone who is with the body of a loved one, the way those women were, the way women so often are, you know what that looks like. They abide, they touch, they are so completely there.  You know what love looks like.  You’ve done it.  Love doesn’t see the broken body as putrid. 

            When the women arrive to be with the body, they learn the risen one has gone ahead to continue the work of loving this world.  Death didn’t end him.

            Do you ever wonder where he went for three days, from Friday to Sunday?  I know Apostle’s Creed talk is not exactly what animates an Easter sermon, especially that “He was crucified and buried.  He descended into hell.”  We get through that line as fast as we can.  We get a running start and hope nobody asks about it.  In the West, we avoid hell.  We emphasize how Jesus overcame death.  In the East, it’s different.  They emphasize how Jesus overcame hell.  He goes to the most broken of broken places, and flings open the gates and starts pulling people out.  Look at their artwork some time.  What an image.

            A few weeks ago, more than one of you came up to me after the service to ask me if I’d heard a recent episode of NPR’s “This American Life.”  It turns out it was a rerun and I had heard the original broadcast years before.  It featured an evangelical pastor in Tulsa named Carlton Pearson and his saga is now portrayed in the Netflix film Come Sunday.  Perason was a charismatic preacher who ended up standing apart from his tradition.  After experiencing what he could only describe as a word from God, Pearson had the audacity, and it did take audacity, to declare from the pulpit, that nobody was in hell.  Pearson’s whole religious mission had been to save people from going to hell until he realized that in so many words, someone had already done it.

            And, he lost it all—his church, his reputation.  Once a rising star, he was ostracized for his position.  His own faith was rattled.  He enters this period of spiritual death.  Everything kind of stopped, lost all bearings.  That can happen when you stop, but it gives you a chance to get reoriented.  After a time, Pearson gets a most unusual invitation, to speak at a church led by someone who was clearly a prior theological adversary.  It was a church filled with people who never would have been in pews in prior days, and that’s when he starts to rise again. 

            Pearson gets up to speak and begins kind of slowly, still getting his bearings.  He reflects with some wonder about being there in that space with them, wondering what he possibly had to say to them.  The congregation is filled with people who had been pushed away by religion, because of their sexual orientation, maybe their beliefs or lack thereof, but that’s where he finds his connection point. Pearson now knows what it feels like to be left for dead by others, others who are supposed to be about love. So, he speaks out of his own rejection, and asks a question that answers itself:  How could people be so threatened by the idea that God loves everyone, that there isn’t eternal punishment, and that redemption wins, resurrection wins?

            Pearson had been silenced, seized, you might say, by terror and amazement at his encounter with a heavenly messenger.  And, that’s when resurrection happens.  Faithless abandoners and killers of God?  Stop it with that kind of talk.  Crawling toward a putrid body in a grave?  Stop it. Get off your knees.  The women already told us.  The body isn’t in the tomb.  It’s empty.  Hell too. Christ has gotten up and is busy loving the world.  Christ is risen.  (Christ is risen indeed).  How about you?


[1]Commentary - Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, Lent Through EastertideDavid L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, p. 356.