Easter 2017

“Tell It Again” Susan Ryder

Nathan Kirkpatrick writes, “My colleague Christine Parton Burkett reminds [us] that children, after hearing a well-told story, never respond, ‘What does it mean?’ Instead, with glee and abandon they exclaim, ‘Oh, tell it again!’ She reminds [us] that, as human beings, we never really outgrow our love of a story well-told; there is a part of each of us that wants to cheer, ‘Oh, tell it again!’ Several years ago in The New York Times Sunday Review, the Swedish writer Henning Mankell wrote that ‘a truer nomination for our species than Homo sapiens might be Homo narrans, the storytelling person.’ Mankell’s argument was not that the biologists are wrong or that we are not thinking creatures but rather that we are also — and maybe even primarily — storytelling creatures. We make sense of the world and our place in it through story. Story is how we create meaning, how we interpret reality, and how we come to know who we are and why we are. That is why when we hear a story that we know is good and true, we say, ‘Oh, tell it again.’

And so we tell it again this morning – the Easter story – from Mark’s Gospel.

 Mark 16:1-8
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But 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. But 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.’ 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.

I was 6 1/2 years old when I saw my first dead body. I wasn’t supposed to see the man I had known as my grandfather, my father’s stepfather. My parents carefully steered me away from the viewing room during the visitation until a family member diverted their attention at the same time I needed to use a restroom. One wrong door later, and there he was. He did NOT look like he was “just sleeping peacefully,” as my aunts and uncles had been reassuring my grandmother. He looked stiff, unnatural – the color of his skin was off, his hair too perfect – and he was dressed in a suit and tie, something I’d never seen him wear when he was alive. Though he was lying down instead of sitting, he reminded me of the audio animatronic creature my father helped create for Disneyland’s “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” – the one who scared the crap out of me when I was 5. We were standing on stage during a special presentation of the show before the grand opening, and when he leaned forward to stand up (Mr. Lincoln, not my grandfather), I screamed and ran out of the theater. Now I live in Illinois – the land of Lincoln – it does all come full circle, doesn’t it?

My mother found me frozen in place next to the casket, shocked and mortified. That image of my grandfather stayed with me for a long time, replacing the one I had of him when he was alive. I’ve had an aversion to dead bodies ever since. Not to say that others particularly enjoy them, of course; but my discomfort with them goes beyond the norm. Perhaps that’s why Easter was never a favorite holiday of mine. Even as a child, when I got a basket full of chocolate goodies and a pretty new dress, I never really cared for Easter. I couldn’t understand how those women and the disciples didn’t scream and run away when they first saw the-several-days-dead Jesus hobbling around on his broken ankles. It’s certainly what I would have done had my grandfather sat up and moved around, let alone talked to me. But no, these people celebrated that he was back from the dead by hanging out with him for several days. Maybe I was too literal, even as a kid, but that just didn’t appealed to me. Which probably explains why the version of the story I have long preferred is the one from Mark’s Gospel.

“He is not here,” the women are told by the stranger dressed in white. “He has gone on ahead of you.” So they fled from the tomb, ran away in terror, and told no one. That’s how Mark’s gospel originally ended – without any accounts of post-resurrection interactions. I learned in seminary that someone else added the later verses, so that Mark would be similar to the others. Once I found out that verses 9-20 were not part of the original, the Mark story became much more appealing AND compelling. The resurrection accounts from the other gospels stretched the limits of reason for me, even at a young age, as I could not imagine anyone wanting to spend time with “walking dead” Jesus. I appreciate Mark’s version even more now because it leaves so much to the imagination. As readers, we are in on the story – we know the women must have told someone, eventually, or we wouldn’t be reading the story all these years later. So what happened after they ran off? Did they head for Galilee? Who did they eventually tell and when? What exactly did they tell them? In this way, the author of Mark invites us not only to become part of the story, but also to be tellers of it, from our perspective of having found the empty tomb along with the women. Because ultimately, we create the ending of the story. Tell it again.

In the final chapter of the Gospel of Mark, early in the morning on the first day of the week, the women arrive at the tomb of Jesus and find the stone rolled away. They enter the tomb to find a young man sitting inside. What they do not see is the body of Jesus. And the young man says to them: “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go; tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” Jesus, the one who so often got there first, is once again going on ahead. Jesus, the one who was led into the wilderness to fast and pray, and though tempted to give it all up and choose a different path, stayed true to his calling; Jesus, the one who called improbable, inappropriate people to become his followers; Jesus, the one who broke all the rules and allowed a foreign woman to teach him a valuable lesson during a verbal exchange – this is the Jesus we have been getting to know during our Lenten journey. This is the Jesus who has gone on ahead of the women and disciples, reversing the original journey he set upon from Galilee to Jerusalem to confront the powers that were – now heading back to where he started.

Tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. Quite possibly the most overlooked phrase in the story. With all the focus on the man in white, the empty tomb, and where the heck Jesus’ body went – those words are lost as we rush to get to what’s next. But that phrase IS what is next. Galilee – where it all began, where they are all from. Galilee, to the north, was a very different region than the regions of Judea where Jerusalem was located. Galilee was more racially and religiously diverse, more agricultural than citified – Galileans were the northern country cousins looked down upon by the southern city slickers, not as polished or educated, and they certainly didn’t follow Judaism the right way, like the good Jews of Jerusalem did. Plus the Galileans were under the rule of Herod’s son rather than Rome directly, which meant that local politics in Jesus’ home region were a little different than those in Judea under the Roman Governors. And because of its position away from Jerusalem, Galilee was able to become more of a center of social dissent and economic protest. In fact, Galilee had a centuries old tradition of political autonomy under the God of Israel, and therefore more political unrest against its invaders and their collaborators. Galilee was a place where revolutions were born.

Tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. The risen Jesus has gone on ahead of us, too, calling us into God’s future. Because the point of the Easter story is not to linger at an empty tomb, trying to figure it all out. The point of the Easter story is not to find a way to explain or justify the physical resuscitation of a corpse. The point of the Easter story is to head in the direction Jesus has already gone, to continue in our time what Jesus began in his.

In “The Trial of Jesus,” an old play by John Masefield, the centurion who oversaw Jesus’ crucifixion reports back to Pilate. Pilate’s wife asks the centurion to tell her about Jesus’ death. After hearing his description, she asks if he thinks Jesus is dead. “No, my lady,” he replies. “He’s been let loose in the world where neither Roman nor Jew can stop his truth.” This is the part of the story that claims us – not some sacrificial atonement or miraculous overturning of biology – but the part that tells us that the risen Christ is out there ahead of us, let loose in the world, leading us into a future beyond prejudice, poverty, and even politics. We make sense of the world and our place in it through story. Story is how we create meaning, how we interpret reality, and how we come to know who we are and why we are. Our story is that Jesus goes ahead of us into a future that cannot be defined or constrained by death or grief or loss. Jesus goes before us into a future of peace and love, justice and truth, restoration and reconciliation. Even in death, Jesus continues to lead us into a future that the Sacred dreams possible.

Tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee.

We create the ending of the story. Our work has just begun.

Oh, tell it again.