Sermon of the Week:
Again & Again: The Sun Rises
Easter Sunday ~ Resurrection of the Lord
Keywords: Day of Resurrection, Mark, Empty Tomb, Sunrise, Esau McCulley. #pcusa
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-733469. All rights reserved.
There is a line, in a Psalm,
That rings through my ears
Whenever I read Mark’s Resurrection story.
Weeping may linger for the night,
But joy comes with the morning…
Typical for Mark, the details are scarce:
The scene opens with three women,
on the first day of the week
walking to the place where Jesus’ body lay.
They were preoccupied with their task, their duty,
wondering if they’d find someone to help them roll away that stone…
Mark tells us it was early, so very early,
Quote, “when the sun had risen.”
So it was dark. Then it was sunrise.
These women, focused, on their way to the tomb…
Do you think they noticed the sunrise, peeking up over the horizon?
Did they see it?
Weeping may linger for the night,
But joy comes with the morning…
Mark doesn’t tell us whether they noticed or not,
But they had a lot weighing them down, surely.
They’d be forgiven if they paid it no mind.
It had been quite a week.
They had important work to do, as well.
The preparation of a body for a proper burial isn’t a simple thing.
There was a process, handed down over the centuries,
An act of love for the dearly departed…
All of that would have been weighing on them,
Along with everything else from the crazy, stressful, chaotic week that just concluded.
Maybe they were paying attention
To the reality that it was not all that safe for them to be out and about
On the streets of Jerusalem
For those who were close to Jesus.
There was a crowd, demanding his death, just two days ago.
So there was that, too.
That must have been disconcerting, causing them to move cautiously, deliberately.
This wasn’t a leisurely stroll to the tomb.
And then, of course, there was the simple fact
That someone they loved, their friend, was dead.
In other words, had THEIR weeping lingered through the night
Everyone would understand.
Maybe they were weeping as they walked together that Easter morning.
Did they notice the sunrise?
They had a lot on their mind.
I’m guessing the sun rose without a second thought.
That would make it like most sunrises for most people.
Most people don’t notice the sunrise.
Same for me, I confess.
Whenever I’m up that early,
unless it is the most spectacular of sunrises
I rarely, if ever, pay much attention to it.
All of this prompted me to research
The mechanics of a sunrise.
It is simply astonishing, the physics of it all.
A sunrise is the result of the Earth spinning at nearly a thousand miles per hour,[i]
Travelling an orbit of 584 million miles,
Around a star that’s a million times the size of our planet…
Taking in the magnitude of all that is dizzying.
Thinking about it fills me with a sense of awe, of gratitude, of amazement.
But most of the time I barely give the rising sun a thought at all.
I’m a night person,
So I get up begrudgingly,
And if I have my way I often sleep right through the day’s sunrise.
Lately, though, I’ve been up getting up early.
We have new pups who need a morning walk.
And sometimes, sure, Brook and I make note of the rising sun
Maybe if it is extra,
purple and pink, or if the clouds fall just right…
But that’s the exception that proves the rule:
Most of the time the sunrise just happens,
Without fanfare, without any notice given,
This incredible, breathtaking moment
When night gives way to day
And tomorrow is finally here…
It usually comes and goes, unnoticed,
As I’m just doing everyday things,
Like walking my dogs, looking out for squirrels to avoid
Thinking about my to-do list and the start of my day….
Denise Anderson suggests that,
Because we’ve come to expect sunrises every day,
we’re not always impressed by them….
That doesn’t make them any less awesome, or miraculous.[ii]
And there’s significant truth to that.
The things we experience over and over again,
That we come to expect, like the sunrise,
they don’t stand out without effort.
We often don’t pay them no nevermind.
This is one reason we put such focus on remembering,
On intentionality, on doing things together
Like sharing a common meal, sharing the Lord’s supper,
which we’ll do a bit later this morning.
These practices help us name things
Important things, that we might otherwise let pass by, unawares.
And what I love about Mark,
What I love about his telling of the Easter Gospel
Is that it is so different;
it helps shake us from this tendency within us to let important things pass by,
if we can but listen, and let Mark’s Gospel shake us.
It is possible, don’t you think,
That Easter can be as familiar to us as the Sunrise.
Something that returns to us, rhythmically, like clockwork,
Year after year,
So repetitively that we barely notice a world spinning so fast
Barely notice the transition from yesterday to today,
Barely notice that everything, suddenly, is different?
Like night and day.
We know the Easter story, most of us do, I imagine,
And even if you’re new to the Christian faith, or checking it out again after a while,
You probably have the broad details down.
Let’s start with the fact that Jesus was dead.
Without Good Friday, when Jesus died, Easter never happened.
Without Good Friday, you cannot have Easter
because you can’t have resurrection…if nobody is dead.
He was dead.
He wasn’t sleeping, he was dead.
ALL the texts say that.
What was the proclamation of the early church?
“This Jesus whom you hanged on a tree…
…God raised from the dead.”
Jesus was dead.
You ask the soldiers, they’ll tell you—
“You talking about the one in the middle?
Oh yeah, he’s dead.”
You ask his disciples.
“Well, we weren’t really close—we’d gotten off to a rather safe distance,
but we could tell when he died…”
You ask the women who prepared the body for burial on Friday:
“yes, yes…yes, he was dead.”
You ask Mary. Mary?
he says, “Yes, yes, I know what you’re going to ask,
You can’t have a resurrection…if nobody’s dead.
See the nail-prints? See the scars?
That was Friday.
And on Sunday morning,
Jesus is no longer dead.
Christ is alive!
Christ is risen!
Jesus was dead, crucified,
And Jesus was raised.
Christ is risen.
He is alive.
It is God’s answer to the things in our world that are dying,
To every existential no,
To the expectation that the only power that exists
is the power that abuses and corrupts
And certainly not the power of love.
God’s answer is the empty tomb,
The affirmation that death is not the final word
That love shall win.
Now, there was one Easter,
And one Resurrection,
But each Gospel tells this story a little bit differently.
Matthew, for instance, tells us there was an earthquake,
When the women got to the tomb.
Matthew describes an earth rumbling, earth shaking experience,
And more than that,
There’s an angel at the scene,
A bona fide angel,
who rolled the stone away and sat upon it.
And, according to Matthew, when the women left to go tell the disciples,
Jesus met them on the way.
Greetings! Jesus says to them. As if it were any other day.
As if earthquake and angel and resurrection were no big deal. Not for God!
He’s back, Matthew tells us.
All is well.
And there is laughter and tears.
They bow down, touch his feet.
There was great joy. Matthew.
Luke tells the same story,
Noting that it doesn’t all fit into a neat explanation.
I mean, he died, Luke affirms. But now he’s not dead.
So Luke uses words like perplexed and idle tale to describe what that first day was like
Which is good, because all of this should be confusing to all of us…
The women had gone to the tomb, just like in Mark, with all these spices and oils
And, here, in Luke, there are two, count them, two men
In dazzling clothes,
Not quite an angel and an earthquake,
But there to respond to their perplexity with one of those questions
That sounds like it should have an obvious answer:
Why do you look for the living among the dead?
He is not here. He is risen!
Indeed, he is.
And in the very next scene,
Luke tells us that Jesus is found walking with the disciples to Emmaus.
And then he does a few other things after that,
Including teaching and opening their minds to the scriptures.
Explaining for us that this experience that doesn’t fit neatly into our expectations
Nonetheless is wrapped up, by the end of his story, quite nicely.
Jesus is back. He’s doing Jesus things again. Thanks be to God.
John has his own particular flair.
His Easter gospel features a track competition
A race between two of the disciples
summoned, as they were, back to the tomb by Mary, who initially found it empty.
They get there, breathless, see that its indeed empty, as she said, and then go back home.
Mary remains, grieving, when she sees someone she thinks is the gardener,
A gardener she doesn’t know,
A gardener who… calls her by name,
Rabbouni! My Rabbi!
It’s Jesus, of course, says John,
Relief and tears soon follow,
Along with Jesus, then, meeting the disciples in their locked room,
And doubting Thomas,
And then the lakeshore reunion, where he makes all of them breakfast
Fish over a charcoal fire…
Different Gospels, different ways to describe
What happened on this amazing day,
This day when what was expected to happen
What always happens….didn’t happen
When, instead, God did a new thing. An amazingly awesome thing.
Each account is wonderful in its own way,
And so is Mark,
But Mark is also….different.
There’s none of the closure.
None of the resolution that you find in the other stories.
That is significant.
Mary, the Mother of James,
Arrive that first day of the week
Somber, focused, grieving,
There to tend to the body of their friend and teacher
Who had just been murdered by the state
And abandoned by their religious leaders.
The stone that they had been fixated on
Was not an obstacle after all…
It was rolled away,
And someone is there to explain:
Do not be alarmed;
You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.
He has been raised; He is not here.
Go. Tell the others. Tell Peter.
Go to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you…
And they flee.
Terrified and amazed.
And that’s it.
Mark ends there.
That’s the Easter Gospel, according to Mark.
Well, where are the post resurrection encounters? You might ask.
Where is the encounter on the road or at the dinner table or in the garden?
Where’s the resolution to their worries, the clearing up of the mystery?
For Mark, there is no closure, at least not yet.
Just a hint of promise: Go to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.
I like how Mary Luti describes this ending:
We should be glad [that] Mark does not overexplain.
His reticence clears a space for us to feel
Whatever we feel when confronted with the Easter proclamation,
Without having to shoehorn our response into the usual template
Of triumphant exuberance.[iii]
In other words, for Mark,
Resurrection happens before we have all the answers
Before we recognize the risen Christ
Before he greets us, wounded and alive,
And offers us comfort and peace.
Resurrection is God’s answer to the pain and hurt and violence of our world,
And it happens, like the sunrise, whether we notice it or not.
Sometimes, Easter happens to us when we aren’t expecting it to,
And maybe when we don’t even want it.
There was a moving essay this weekend in the New York Times
With the title The Unsettling Power of Easter.[iv]
Esau McCaulley writes powerfully about his experience in the Black church of his childhood
The tradition of wearing your Sunday best
How he felt out of place, no money to afford a suit or tie,
Only to have experienced the joy of his mother,
who cobbled enough leftover money together,
buy him a navy three piece suit with a clip on tie.
Without my father around (he said) neither she nor I could tie the real thing…
The suit was a source of pride and belonging.
I thought I had joined the elect when I showed up fresh and clean for Sunday service…
Only to have that feeling quickly dashed when, during a song,
The woman sitting next to him, caught up in the spirit, kicked out,
hit him in the leg, and ripped a hole in his brand-new pants.
McCaulley says that Easter Sunday introduced him to two important things:
The show that is the church on Easter,
And the disturbing prospect that God is present with us,
God’s power breaking out and unsettling the world.
Mark’s Gospel, McCaulley says, offers him a space
To see things differently, raw, incomplete, and with a new purpose:
to bear hope into the world.
“We know what to do with grief and despair.
We have a place for it.
We have rituals that surround it.
I know how to look around at the anti-Black racism,
the anti-Asian racism,
the struggles of families at the border and feel despair.
I know what it’s like to watch the body count rise after a mass shooting,
only to have the country collectively shrug
because we are too addicted to our guns and our violence…
I put it all in the tomb that contains my dead hopes
and dreams for what the church and country could be.
I am left with only tears….
Hope is much harder to come by.
The women did not go to the tomb looking for hope.
They were searching for a place to grieve.
They wanted to be left alone in despair.
The terrifying prospect of Easter
is that God called these women
to return to the same world that crucified Jesus with a very dangerous gift: hope in the power of God,
the unending reservoir of forgiveness
and an abundance of love.
It would make them seem like fools.
Who could believe such a thing?
Christians, at their best,
are the fools who dare believe in God’s power to call dead things to life.
Mark’s telling of this story
Allows us to sit and linger a bit in that space
Where not everything is tidy yet
But there’s hope.
There’s hope at the empty tomb.
Weeping may linger for the night,
But joy comes with the morning…
The sun rises.
It is a new day.
But not a day like any other.
A new new day.
Jesus, he is not here.
He’s ahead of you, in Galilee
That place of marginalized people, a place rich with theological and political meaning.
Jesus is not here.
He’s out there.
Serving and ministering and loving people who need to know they are loved,
Even in the midst of all this weeping and suffering
Because nothing can stop the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Certainly not death, not even death on a cross.
Go and find him out there.
And Mark then leaves it open,
As if to ask us:
Hey, hey you,
Did you find him?
Did you find Jesus?
Did you carry his love and his forgiveness and his hope out into this broken world of ours?
If you did, that’s Easter!
That’s a NEW day.
That’s an Easter sunrise.
Christ is Risen.
He is Risen Indeed.
Let’s go out and find the Risen Lord.
May it be so.
Image Credit: “Easter Sunrise” by DavinaHome at https://pixabay.com/photos/easter-sunrise-sunrise-arran-sunrise-4346942/
[i] At the equator, it’s 1,037 mph. It would be less at other latitudes. See https://www.space.com/33527-how-fast-is-earth-moving.html (accessed April 3, 2021)
[ii] Commentary for Easter by the Rev. T. Denise Anderson, from A Sanctified Art: Again & Again, The Sun Rises.
[iii] “Pastoral Perspective” for John 16:1-8 in Cynthia Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, Ed. Feasting on the Gospels: Mark. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014) p. 530
[iv] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/02/opinion/easter-celebration.html (accessed April 3, 2021)