Homily at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
Sunday, April 16th
Some of you may have noticed that a fortune 500 company has been advertising an Easter message during Lent, since Ash Wednesday, if not before. With bold blue background, these giant billboards announce “Your World Delivered” – with an Apollo mission photo of the earth in the space of the letter “o” in the word “world.” Yes, AT&T, ma bell, formerly SBC, formerly Ameritech, formerly AT&T (if you can keep track of the telecommunications morphings), has been jumping the liturgical gun, oblivious to if not defiant of church protocal, with a message of hope and redemption to the world. At least that’s my interpretation of their message.
Easter is the celebration of the deliverance of the world – from its brokenness, violence, selfishness, greed and deathly ways. God has overcome death and opened the way to us to eternal life. Leave it to AT&T to so sucinctly and creatively capture a piece of the good news. Yet, it is at this point that AT&T and the church diverge. What I suspect AT&T would like you to think is that your world will now be easier, less stressful, more efficient if you sign up for their calling plans, Internet and cable services. The Easter message of Christianity couldn’t be more different. The beautiful lilies, glorious music, white vestments point to a celebration of deliverance – but one that complicates and threatens our lives in the depth of its true message and meaning.
In English, “Fear.” In Greek, “Fob-eh-o.” Terror, fear, dread. That’s how the story ends. Let me read the ending to you again: “So the women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Afraid. These women who went to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus, flee in such terror that they can’t even talk about what they’ve seen. They are in a paralysis of fear. Is this the good news we’ve traveled these 40 days of Lent to hear? Yes. Yes. And Yes. And like the women, we should be afraid. For the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, as it is written in the book of Proverbs (9:10).
Four hundred years before Jesus was raised from the dead, Plato examined the concept of reality in his famous Republic through an illustration known as the “Allegory of the Cave.” Plato asks you to imagine prisoners chained together deep within a cave. They can see shadows on the wall in front of them but not people who are manipulating puppets in front of a great fire to create the shadows. Since all the prisoners have ever known is the vision of the wall of the cave in front of them, they assume the shadows are the reality – the puppets themselves. They base their lives and understanding on shadows. Were they to be unchained and see the real situation, they would realize how mistaken they had been. Perhaps they would be seized with terror and amazement, and run out of the cave – only to be overwhelmed again at the sight the Sun. In the dawn of the first day, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome have been looking down at the path – the path to the tomb, the path of their lives. For a short while, they had experienced a different life – one of healing, abundance, authenticity and truth by association and friendship with this man from Nazareth – this Jesus. Their gaze had been lifted and expanded from the narrow path to the world around them. With Jesus dead and encapsulated in stone, they approach the tomb with heads down, seeing only their shadows and the ruts and dust of the path. But like the prisoners in the cave who are unchained and turn around to face a new reality, the women look up from the ground to see the stone rolled away; it is in the dimness of the tomb that they see a new reality – the fire of resurrection in these words: “He has been raised; he is not here.” Unchained from a life of shadows, the women flee in terror.
For many, the ending to Mark’s Gospel seems sudden and unfinished. In fact, scribes in later centuries added another eleven verses to the original ending, including an account of Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene and the disciples. He tells them about demons, tongues, snakes and drinking deadly things. This is a corruption of the text – worth reading – because it shows that we are not alone in our discomfort and that even the early Christians were uncomfortable with the original ending. But it is the original ending that is the point of the Gospel, that contains its power – because where it ends, is where we are right now. Looking to our Jewish roots, we are reminded of the practice and tradition of midrash — an approach to seeking multiple meanings in sacred text, of treating gaps in the story as invitations. This is more than just a gap – but a wide open space. With the women having fled into the distance, we are the ones who are left standing near the tomb. The ending of Mark’s Gospel is our beginning, inviting our response. It is an awkward moment. What do we see? The dusty ground under our feet? The shadows of our bodies cast on the walls of the tomb by the rising sun? Or do we look up, breaking free from a world of shadows, flatness and two dimensions to see the depth of the emptiness of the tomb and the intense fire of resurrection?
The Gospel of Mark begins with this audacious pronouncement: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” So is this the good news we’ve waited for? The kingdom of God in an empty tomb? A state of fear? Our awkwardness? Yes. Yes and Yes. What we claim and celebrate is that God is no longer safely behind the curtain in the temple. The curtain has been ripped in two, and all the seamstresses in Jerusalem can’t stich it back together. God is no longer behind the curtain. The nails pounded into the cross or the boulder sealing the tomb – none of these can keep God under our control. Their failure means that God is out in the world, at large, whose whereabouts and actions are uncertain and unpredictable. All of our attempts to recapture and box-in God will not deny this truth – our Creeds, confessional statements, finely tuned theologies, elaborate worship and ceremonies, prayers, atheism, despair and joy – they may point to God, assure us and comfort us, but none will contain the one who has been raised. And like the women, we should be afraid, because having lived in a world of shadows, darkness and death, the reality of resurrection is astonishing, amazing and terrifying. Those who would say that our resurrection story is a myth are quite correct. The Greek statesman Solon said long ago that a myth isn’t about something that never happened but about something that happens over and over again. We are brought over and over again to the reality that Christ is in the world, flooding our shadowy existence with light and life.
With Jesus going ahead of us, that means that we might encounter him anywhere at anytime. This afternoon, tomorrow and a year from now. At Glenbard West. At Wyndemere Circle. At the Glen Oak. At McChesney’s. At Firkin and Fox. At Wheaton College. 67 N. Kenilworth. 655 Pleasant. 230 Forest. Even at Hillside and Main (the unofficial address of St. Mark’s). When you check your e-mail; when pick up the phone to call someone to help at a parish event or outreach project; when you answer the phone. This is the scary and true meaning of the good news. This is “Your World Delivered.”
The last word of the Gospel of Mark is “afraid.” We are at a precipice. It is not an ending but an invitation. For 2,000 years, Christians have been accepting that invitation – with fear and terror. And St. Mark’s will continue to participate in that response – and it may be scary at times. While driving on I-355, I noticed a sign on the back of UPS semi that read, “If you can’t see the truck’s mirror, the truck can’t see you.” With traffic changing lanes, merging and passing, and moving at 70 miles an hour, a gospel message appears. Not a new ending to Mark, but a piece of the continuing story of faith. Standing by the tomb, head to the ground, we can’t see the truck’s mirror, and we should be afraid – of getting cut off or run over. Look up, go ahead. You will seek and see the mirror.
If you’ve seen any of the AT&T billboards, you know that they’re at it again, jumping ahead of the church’s liturgical calendar, with a Pentecost message: “Your Networking Delivered.” Another good message, but that will have to wait for another Sunday.