Sermon delivered by Keith Herron, pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, M.O., on April 12, 2009.
Mark 16: 1-8
Here’s an Easter thought to ponder: Without Easter morning’s resurrection and the subsequent breaking in of the Spirit on Pentecost, likely we wouldn’t know one blessed thing today about Jesus. Without those twin events, Jesus might have slipped into the fog of the distant past. Resurrection morning is the doorway through which we encounter the Jesus of history. Because of Easter, redemption was announced to the world.
Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian of the 20th century once said that people come to church with one question in the back of their minds: “Is it true?” On Easter morning I suspect that question is even more particular: “Is it true about the resurrection?”
So why are you here? What nagging question did you bring with you this morning? Maybe you’ve been a Christian for years now, and yet you’re still struggling to answer the core question of Christianity: “Is it true about the resurrection?” The church has often been guilty in suggesting it’s a question with only one answer and there should be no debate about it. Something along the lines of, “the Bible says it and that settles it.” But the question deserves better from us. To cling to our questions is not a sign of unfaith and to admit we have questions is not a sign of weakness. Some would take away our honest questions, and when that happens, it only helps sharpen the notion that unquestioned truth may not be truth at all.
Two questions seem to dominate Easter. The first is, “What happened?” When we read the gospel accounts, we want to glean from the stories the fact-based questions a reporter might ask. Who? What? When? Where? To be honest, the gospels are not accustomed to drawing the lines of the truth of the story on such hard lines of fact. In Mark, our text for today, the empty tomb is discovered by Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James, and Salome all who were the first to come to the tomb. They came with spices meant to embalm his body that had been hastily laid in the tomb and simply wrapped with cloths in order to place him there in time for the beginning of the Sabbath. But in Matthew, Salome is missing; it’s only Mary and “the other Mary,” as she’s called. In Luke’s gospel, they come as a nameless group of women; specifically, they were the women who had come from Galilee with Jesus and the disciples. John only names Mary the Magdalene in his gospel.
Which was it? Was Mary alone, or did the “other mother” Mary come with her? Was Salome there or not? What about the other women? Were they there or not?
You see, trying to get the facts right is terribly difficult. The questions a reporter might ask continue throughout the mystery of those days. But don’t be too tough on them, the gospels weren’t written until a generation later and it would seem harsh to hold them in judgment. Why even in front of hundreds of people, a single historical account of what happened at the assassination of President Kennedy still haunts the American people.
The second question is, of course, “What did it mean?” This questions shifts beyond the imaginary issue of “What happened?” and opens itself up to ultimate concerns. Is it possible the stories of the four gospel writers need to be read from a larger perspective than merely judging them by some false sense of factuality?
Whether we read the story in its harder form of unquestioned historical fact, or whether we consider the story in its softer form by not obsessing about whether there was one angel present (as in Mark and Matthew) or two (in Luke) at the tomb on that morning. This seems to be our choice with much of the Bible’s stories – to take the hard course of biblical literalism or to see if there’s a larger issue that can be gleaned by a softer approach to the so-called facts. As my old professor of religion at Baylor would state in this kind of situation, “You pays your money and takes your choice.” Besides, as N.T. Wright would add, “the surface discrepancies do not mean nothing happened; rather, they mean that the witnesses have not been in collusion.”
Nevertheless, scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan agree that what we need to remember is even the softer form of hearing the story affirms the historical facts of “the basics” of the Easter story: viz., the tomb really was empty. The tomb was empty not because the body was stolen, or that they went to the wrong tomb in the predawn darkness, or that Jesus had merely swooned and was resuscitated in the cool of the cave. Jesus actually appeared to his followers after his death in a physical form “that could be seen, heard and touched.”
Morris Ashcraft once observed that sometimes we miss out on the biblical drama because we’re so hung up on the sets and the lights and the staging. At the heart of the story is a narrative so compelling, so engaging and beyond our best hopes, it turned the world upside down. Followers who were despondent and dismayed on Friday were dramatically and irreversibly turned around by the time Pentecost arrived.
Now perhaps we can return to the second question, “What did it mean?” So we return to the text for our clues. Everyone in the story seems to be running. Think of Forrest Gump and the way he overcame his spindly legs as a boy. Think of any Tom Cruise movie. Think of your schedule for this week, think of the anxious craziness that comes along any time our candles burn at both ends. Back and forth Mary runs sputtering, “They’ve taken the Lord!” The men hit the door running. One believes and we don’t know what the others think. Nevertheless, it seems they all returned to their homes to went back to bed. But not Mary … she stayed. She wept. The whole affair played out in her mind like a game of peek-a-boo, like pieces of bread dropped on the path for a child lost in the woods to follow. She couldn’t sort it out in her brain. Maybe this kind of experience can only be told in a story …
John Claypool was a young pastor in a rural southern town and one of the joys of living there was hearing the old-timers reminisce about the community. One story was told over and over and it became a story that embodied the community and gave it an identity as they told and retold the story amongst themselves.
It was about John and Nellie, two young kids born to prominent families who fell in love with one another. They set a date for their wedding and everyone expected this to be the social event of the year. But unexpectedly, two weeks before the wedding, Nellie shocked the community by eloping with an older man in the community who was colorful and dashing but also with a shady reputation. John was totally devastated by the humiliation and disappointment of it all even to the point he considered taking his own life because of Nellie’s betrayal.
Less than a year later, Nellie showed up again, broken and shamed by what had happened. Her “Prince Charming” had gotten her pregnant and then lost interest in her and she had no choice but to come home to her parents. People in the community weren’t too surprised by all this, but they did wonder how John would respond to Nellie’s return because she had brought so much pain into his life. Everyone expected him to relish her condition as retribution for sowing what she reaped.
But that’s not what happened. Great with child, John asked if he could call on her and speak to her personally. Nellie was so fearful of the whole world of things he might say she refused to see him. She was fearful of a face-to-face encounter because of the shame she felt. Resolute, he wrote her a letter that he handed to her father with the assurance she would get it. In the letter, John made no attempt to gloss over his pain; he was utterly honest and made no attempt to evade the deep hurt he experienced because of her elopement and the double pain he felt that was hers because her marriage didn’t work out.
“However,” he said, “there is something bigger than what you have done; namely, the love I still have for you and my hope for the future. Believe me, Nellie,” he added, “I have always loved you and I always will, which means I am willing to face with you whatever darkness caused you to do what you did a year ago. I am willing to walk with you into that valley until we get to the bottom of it, and when that happens, I am confident we can walk on through it to the light on the other side.” He signed it, “As ever, John.”
The story goes that Nellie was so amazed by the contents of the letter she cried for two solid days, but something in her could not believe that such mercy and hope could exist in the world. Still not able to face John, she wrote back and thanked him for his proposal, but said, “I cannot accept it. There is not enough mercy in all the world for what I did. I will never be able to forgive myself, and I was the one who caused the pain. How then, could you, the aggrieved, ever forgive? I can no longer stand to look at myself in the mirror, much less love myself. How could you ever love one who could do so terrible a deed?”
Nellie turned her back on mercy and John’s deep love. She chose rejection and exile from what he offered her. But can you believe it – John did not give up!
For ten more years, John loved her from afar. He never dated another and continued to write letters of encouragement. Periodically, gifts would show up on Nellie’s door. John occasionally had a chance to see Nellie and her growing son on the town square and he would greet the boy affectionately. This might have gone on forever until something happened one day that brought John’s love to action. Nellie was driving through town in her father’s buggy when something frightened her horses, and they began running away. John happened to be on the square and saw what was happening and at incredible risk to his safety he managed to get astride one of the horses and brought them under control, although in the process he severely injured himself. As he lay in the dust with a broken arm and covered with blood, the story is Nellie screamed at him, “Why, John, why? Why didn’t you go ahead and let me be killed? That is what I deserved,” to which he answered feebly, “Don’t you see, Nellie? Don’t you see? I don’t want you dead. I want you alive. There is something bigger than what you did. I still love you, can’t you believe that?”
The old-timers are quick to add that something in Nellie broke loose in that moment. Her images of despair and self-despising gave way to hope and healing and as soon as John recovered, they began to talk honestly with one another. Twelve years to the date from their original wedding date, they married and became a legend of reconciliation in that community. Claypool claimed that even though both John Nellie were long gone by the time he moved there, their story continued to be told.
So we might ask, how does that story help us understand the Easter story? I think Claypool was suggesting that the story continued to shape and reshape the community by offering the model of how there’s always something larger than what we’ve done and that everything we do in life is overshadowed by God’s great love.
Here’s the Good News: Even though Mark’s ending to his gospel is enigmatic and all-too-brief, the angel shares a message from Jesus to the disciples who abandoned him and to Peter who had denied him, “I’ll meet you in Galilee. We began there together; there we will begin anew.” In Easter, there’s always time for things to begin anew.
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).