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Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018 | 8:00, 9:30, and 11:30 a.m.

Easter Promise

Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 118:1–2, 14–24
Isaiah 25:6–9
Mark 16:1–8

Easter is not just about the past, way back then and long ago; it is all about the future. Literally, I say to you, your best days are ahead of you. “Old things are passed away: behold, all things are become new.” What you do with this good news is up to you.

Peter J. Gomes, Strength for the Journey: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living

Ann Weems was a Presbyterian preacher’s daughter and a prolific poet. In 1982 her son Todd died on his birthday, less than an hour after turning twenty-one. As a result, Ann plunged headfirst into deep heartbreak and overwhelming loss. She once reflected about that time, “All the stars fell from my sky.” While still living in the middle of her grief, Ann began to write lament psalms, like the ones she found in scripture, putting them one by one into a desk drawer until a friend convinced her to publish them as a gift for all who weep. I’ve thought about sending a copy to Stephon Clarke’s mother this week.

Listen to these words from Ann’s Psalm 5:

O God, find me! I am lost in the valley of grief, and I cannot see my way out. My friends leave baskets of balm at my feet, but I cannot bend to touch the healing to my heart. They call me to leave this valley, but I cannot follow the faint sound of their voices. They sing their songs of love, but the words fade and vanish in the wind. . . . They shout to me, but I cannot find the voice to answer. O God, find me! Come into the valley and find me! Bring me out of this land of weeping. (Ann Weems, Psalms of Lament)

Mary Magdalene, Salome, and the other Mary also found themselves plunged into the land of weeping, the valley of grief, unable to touch the balm of healing, unable to hear God’s songs of love. We remember their story: they were some of the women who provided for Jesus and his male disciples in Galilee. They, too, followed Jesus, listening to him preach, watching him heal, seeing the wonder of who he was in their world. They were so much a part of that early community of disciples that they had come with the rest of the group to Jerusalem for Passover. Perhaps they left their homes with only a few things thrown into a bag, assuming it would be a regular Passover observance and they would only be gone for a short while.

Yet nothing about that week unfolded in the way they had expected. In the span of just a few days, their beloved rabbi and friend was arrested, put on trial, condemned, and killed. The women had seen it all—from afar. From a distance their bodies tried to absorb the pain of his suffering and grief as they watched him let go of his last breath. Then they stayed to see Joseph of Arimathea take down Jesus’ dead body and place it in the tomb, after which Joseph rolled the massive stone into place. The women watched in shock and terror as Jesus’ suffering, death, and burial played out in front of their eyes.

They knew Jesus had predicted it. Deep down they even knew his death was likely unavoidable. As philosopher John Caputo once wrote, Jesus was always pushing a different kind of politics than the politics typically practiced. Jesus always pushed, in Caputo’s words, “a politics of mercy and compassion, of lifting up the weakest and most defenseless people at home; a politics of welcoming the stranger and of loving one’s enemies abroad; . . . a politics not of sovereignty or of top-down power, but one that builds from the bottom up.” (quoted in Brandon Ambrosino, “Jesus’ Radical Politics,” Boston Globe, 1 April 2015).

The women knew what we know: when you push that kind of politics in this kind of a world, when you proclaim loudly and often that the Living God is Lord and Caesar is not, when that is the way you go through your life, then more often than not you end up on a cross, because you are a threat to the way things are.

Yes, in their heads, the women knew what would probably happen to Jesus as he pushed that kind of politics, that kind of love, that kind of compassion that comforted the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable, but it was an entirely different thing to know it than it was to watch it happen. Yet that is where they found themselves. So Mary Magdalene, Salome, and Mary the mother of James and Joses spent a long sabbath weekend plunged into the valley of grief, the land of weeping, unable to hear any songs of love, unable to find their way out as the stars fell from their sky.

While they were locked up in grief, the sabbath day came and went, but early that next morning the women knew their task. They had to go and properly take care of Jesus’ body. Not only was it the right thing to do, but it would be a way for them to honor him for the last time. They would wash him and anoint him, just as that unnamed woman with the alabaster jar had done a few days before.

But before they could go, they first had to find a place that was selling spices. Remember, they had not brought that kind of stuff with them to Jerusalem. They had not expected their week to end this way. They were not at all prepared, in any sense of the word. So when the sabbath day was over, they went and bought the spices, and then early in the morning, just as the sun was rising, they made their way to the tomb.

Most of us have made that journey ourselves, haven’t we, literally or figuratively? We have walked that slow, numb walk to the graveside, filled with grief but trying to do the right thing in honor of those we love. Like the women, we have gone and bought the proper things to bring: flowers to lay on top of the casket, tissues to wipe our eyes, small tokens of memories to display at the reception. But most of the time, perhaps all of the time, when it gets right down to it none of us are ever really prepared to be there either. So we, like Mary Magdalene, Salome, and Mary walk through our own valley of grief, our own land of weeping, unable to hear songs of love, unable to find our way out, at least not for a very long time.

We don’t know if the women were silent on their way or if they talked about all of the things they needed to do now that Jesus was dead. It can be overwhelming—all of the details one has to wade through: endless paperwork, death certificates, obituaries, service bulletins, piles of to-do lists. Perhaps they talked about those things, maybe not. But we do know that one of them voiced a very practical concern: who would roll away the stone? And then they arrived. Immediately upon their arrival they were completely startled at what they saw. The stone had already been pushed to the side. They rushed in, hoping that no one had taken the precious body of their Jesus. But sitting in the place where Jesus should have been was a complete stranger. The women were terrified—rightfully so.

Unlike us, these women had never read an Easter gospel. They had never known or seen or even considered anything like this before. Dead people stayed dead. They had watched Jesus suffer and die. Yet now they stood in an empty tomb, some stranger in his place. So yes, they were absolutely terrified and extremely alarmed.

That is why the stranger’s words were so odd. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “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.” Raised? Not here? The women could not understand what he was saying. The stranger might have been trying to lay down a basket of balm at their feet, but they were still too lost in the valley of grief to even comprehend these new words.

“Go,” the stranger continued undeterred. “Go and tell his disciples that Jesus is going on ahead of you to Galilee—to the place of life; there you will see him.” Again, it made no sense. These faithful women had no categories to understand what was happening right there in their very midst. The only thing they knew was a Good Friday world. They knew nothing of Easter morning.

So our faithful women fled. They got out of that tomb as quickly as they could and ran away. Our narrator tells us they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid. Of course they were! And we understand their fear, don’t we? After all, we have much in common with these women in Mark’s account of the resurrection (as noted by Barbara Lundblad in her sermon “Who Will Roll Away the Stone?"). Unlike in the other Gospels, in this one the risen Jesus has not appeared to them in the garden. He has not spoken their names. He has not let them touch his wounds. He has not met them on the road, leaving their hearts burning in recognition. We have much in common with them, don’t we?

So we can understand why the women felt so confused, terrified, numb. They might have been watching from afar, but they knew what they had seen. And now, now they are supposed to believe the words of a stranger about resurrection and new life? Now, now they are supposed to see this empty tomb and somehow understand what happened? As they stood in the middle of their land of weeping they were supposed to trust this promise and proclaim it as true? Yes, we have much in common with these women. We know their fear and confusion deep in our souls, don’t we?

And yet, we also know something else this morning. We know more than just fear or grief or confusion. For even though Mark’s original Gospel ends with the women running away, seized with terror and amazement, we know the story did not stop with their running or with their silence. Perhaps it happened the first time they paused and caught their breath. Perhaps it happened when they finally arrived at the house where the others were keeping watch. It could have been that it happened a few hours or days later. Nevertheless, we know something else happened in and with those women, because we have heard their story.

Something, someone helped them break their silence. Something, someone propelled their legs to take them to Galilee where they must have told what they had seen and heard at the empty tomb. Otherwise, we would not know this story. If those faithful women had just remained silent, we would not be here. As preacher Barbara Lundblad has concluded, “Why else would anybody ever have remembered these three women? There is no reason under the sun to remember those whose voices had absolutely no authority. Their testimony was next to worthless in verifying anything, let alone resurrection. Only something larger than terror could break their silence. . .  It always does” (Lundblad, “Who Will Roll Away the Stone?”).

Friends, those women must have encountered Easter in that place. They must have run right into resurrection newness, into promise fulfilled. Something, someone larger than terror broke their silence. Something, someone larger than numbness pulled them up out of it. Something, someone larger than pain and confusion and heartache finally brought them through that valley of grief, that land of weeping. Something, someone put the stars back in their sky, one by one.

For we know their story. We hear their voices. Though Mark ends with their mouths silenced, hoping we would pick up where they left off, we can trust that a song of hope eventually poured forth from their lips. They might have lived in a land of Good Friday. But in God’s mystery, they became Easter people.

But the story does not stop with them, either. The stranger’s words hold true for us, too. Those of us coming back from the graveyards in our lives are also told to go back to the place of life, for the risen Jesus will meet us there, just as he did with those women. Now, depending on where you are on your own journey with Good Friday grief, it might be hard to trust, but I promise you there will be a day when you leave the valley of grief.

There will be a day when you finally walk out of the land of weeping. There will be a day when you can once again follow the sound of God’s voice, hear the song of God’s love, touch God’s healing balm to your heart. I’ve seen it happen too many times; I’ve experienced it happening too many times; I know that it’s true. Those women discovered it also. And today the women testify to us that though we still live in what feels like a Good Friday world, resurrection newness and resilient Easter hope are also waiting to be set free in us, in our lives, just as it was in theirs.

With that promise from God we are brought back to the psalm from our Presbyterian poet, Ann. As it always does somehow, in the middle of her honest lamentation—when she poured it all out to her God—something began to happen: defiant hope began to rise. An utterance of unexpected Easter surfaced in her spirit. Listen: “O You to whom I belong, find me! I will wait here, for You have never failed to come to me. I will wait here, for You have always been faithful. I will wait here, for You are my God, and You have promised that you counted the hairs on my head. “

Something, someone broke Ann’s silence. Something, someone pulled her through all those days of being brokenhearted. Eventually she was able to go back to Galilee, where she found a fulfilled promise larger than terror, larger than grief, larger than death.

Bill Coffin once preached,

[Even if] the resurrection cannot be proved, it can be known, experienced, and it can be trusted. Faith anyhow is not believing without proof; it’s trusting without reservation. The resurrection faith is a willingness—on the basis of all that we have heard, all that we have observed, all that we have thought deeply about and experienced at a level far deeper than the mind ever comprehends—faith is a willingness to risk our life on the conviction that while we human beings kill God’s love we can never keep it dead and buried. Jesus Christ is risen, today, tomorrow, every day. (William Sloane Coffin, The Riverside Preachers, p. 162)

The stars will be put back into our sky.

So come, let us run to Galilee and meet him there—together. For the Lord is risen. He is risen indeed, and because of that truth, we know there will come a day when that land of weeping, that valley of grief, that starless sky will be no more forever. Trust that Easter promise—without reservation. Amen.