Rev. Dr. Amy Butler
The date was April 8, 2007, Easter Sunday morning. The church was filled with people dressed in their finest. There were flowers everywhere and a spirit of joyful anticipation in the air. Much like today.
As I recall, the sanctuary of my former church in Washington, D.C., was set up specially that day, with risers behind the pulpit for the special festival choir to sit during the service. I was preaching the Easter sermon, the Super Bowl of preaching some of us like to say, and I was just rounding the corner for the final lap of the sermon. The congregation was still engaged, I thought I had some fairly funny jokes thrown in there, and, frankly, I was ready to get that sermon behind me. And I was making a point, I think, looking out at the congregation as I turned the second to last page of my sermon manuscript, when things went south.
The first indication I had that something was wrong was a loud, collective gasp from the baritone section behind me—a sound executed in unison as only a trained choir can. Startled, I glanced down at my sermon manuscript only to see that the page I’d turned, while not the last page of the sermon, was the last page of the manuscript I had with me on the pulpit. There were a full two pages of the sermon gone; the end was missing.
Some version of this has happened to me more times than I’d like to admit, the most recent being just this past Thursday night, as a matter of fact. Tell a story like this in a group of preachers and it’s like running your nails down a chalkboard; it’s the stuff of preacher nightmares.
I think that sense of panic rose to the surface for the early Christians when they read Mark’s gospel, the oldest gospel in our New Testament. See, the original manuscript ends as our gospel reading did today, with a small group of women that discovers an empty tomb and then turns to leave. They were filled with so much fear that they knew they couldn’t tell anyone what they’d seen. Today’s story of resurrection is a tale for fools—at least that’s what the women who first experienced it thought.
So if you were to pick up a Bible right now and turn to the gospel of Mark, you’d see that chapter 16, which we read today, actually goes on a little longer than verse—12 more verses to be exact. But scholars know that these were added on later. You know why they were ended later: because ending the story of Jesus with his last holdout disciples fleeing in terror and unable to tell anyone what they’d seen—well, this isn’t exactly inspiring. In fact, Mark’s ending made the early Christians panic—gasping like Mark had lost the last few pages of his manuscript. Folks were so worried about this that they added some other stories onto the end, stories that actually did tie things up in a nice bow, that finished the resurrection account off in an inspirational way.
But I’m not sure a nice, clean ending is reflective of our experience, are you? Sometimes life is hard, and instead of cleaning up the rough edges of a story that sounds foolish and unbelievable, maybe it’s time we named the fact that this story of a life-changing turn of events—the conquest of life over death—happened to people who existed on the margins of society and who did not feel it was safe to talk about what had happened to them because nobody would have believed their stories anyway.
Mary, Mary Magdalene and Salome had gotten up early that morning, gathered the supplies they needed to embalm Jesus’ body, and trudged toward the tomb of Jesus. They weren’t doing anything particularly heroic; in fact, they were doing their chores…the next thing that needed to be done.
That last week had turned their lives upside down; they’d been friends and followers of the rabbi Jesus, but his message had gotten too strident, too political, to challenging to the people in power. And power never cedes without a fight—even we know that. At the end of the day, Jesus was dead, and the men who had been part of their group were in hiding, scared.
So it was left to the women, the folks at the bottom of the social ladder, to pick up the pieces, to show up in the darkness and the death.
Remember the timeline here. Archeologists tell us that Jewish burial customs during Jesus’ time would have required his friends and family to bury him on the same day he died, for sanitary reasons and to conform to Mosaic law. To prepare his body for burial they would have washed it and covered it with precious perfumed oils and spices. Fresh linen would have been tied around his hands and feet and a kerchief placed over his face. Then, his body would have been carefully laid on a stone slab in a tomb and the opening would have been sealed with a large rock. They would have then begun a 7-day intense mourning period called shi’va, during which family members and friends would receive visitors and publicly grieve the loss of someone so dear to them.
But, not unlike everything else Jesus did, even in death he did not conform to the rule.
Remember, Jesus died toward the late afternoon on a Friday. His disciples probably did not have time to give the body of their master the loving care they would have like to give it because the Sabbath was fast approaching—beginning at sundown Friday, during which time they could not do any work at all until sundown Saturday. They must have hurried him to the tomb and did the best they could until they had an opportunity to come back and finish the burial rite.
And as the women made their way to the tomb that morning, their hearts must have been heavy and their bodies were tired; their eyes were raw from crying, too. They had hoped…they had hoped…they had hoped things would finally be different, but here they were on the first morning of the week, up at dawn, going to do their duty and to finally bury the friend who had made them imagine a world that could be different, to hope that the desolation of their lives on the margins would ease.
Tentatively, with a feeling of dread no doubt, they entered the tomb only to find a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting there—and no Jesus. “Don’t be afraid,” the young man said, which is at first glance one of the most ridiculous things one might say in such a situation. But we biblical scholars know that this is a literary tool used throughout the entire scriptural witness: whenever someone unusual shows up and says “Don’t be afraid,” it’s a precursor to the announcement of some important news.
And in this case there was indeed important news—the best, most unbelievable news they could imagine, as a matter of fact.
The women had come to the tomb that morning to finish their chores, to get the job done, to pick up the pieces after the other disciples had left them holding the bag. But there they found themselves, the first to hear a completely unbelievable story: Jesus was not there; he was risen; and he was already back at work. “Go and tell the other disciples,” the women were instructed. But, they couldn’t. Mark’s gospel ends this way: “the women fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.”
That’s how the greatest story ever told ends.
Remember this name.
Someday Naomi Wadler is going to be your boss. Or maybe your president.
She’s only eleven years old, but a few weeks ago she organized a walk out of her elementary school in Arlington, Virginia, a protest of gun violence in American society. Organizers of last week’s March for Our Lives took notice of Naomi and invited her to join the program at the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C. With courage and pluck, she focused a level gaze on that massive crowd and delivered one of the most inspiring speeches of the day.
“My name is Naomi, and I am 11 years old,” she began. She went on to say that she was raising her voice that day to remember the lives of gun violence victims whose names are never spoken or remembered: the many African American girls and women whose deaths don’t make the front page of every national newspaper, who become numbers and statistics instead of names, individuals. Their lives matter, too, she told the crowd.
She continued to say that a lot of people have written her off as a tool of some unnamed adult, but, she declared as she pulled herself up to stand tall, “I know that life isn’t equal for everyone, and I know what’s right and wrong!”
She went on to underscore her commitment to speaking for those who do not have a voice and left the crowd with this directive: “I urge everyone here and everyone who hears my voice to join me in telling the stories that aren’t told. To honor the girls, the women of color who are murdered at disproportionate rates in this nation. I urge each of you to help me write the narrative for this world and understand, so that these girls and women are never forgotten.”
Voices, unheard, calling us to recognize the truth.
We need to listen to Mark, and listen to how he ended his story. It’s true that the women at the tomb fled, afraid, and told no one what they’d seen. But, can you blame them? They were firmly planted on the margins of society, a class of people whose voices were discounted, if they were even heard at all. They knew if they told the story of what they’d seen they would be called fools—maybe even facing retribution for telling a story that pushed back so strongly against the structures of power that existed around them, keeping them down.
But we have a gift today: Mark gives us a finality to the resurrection story that has more parallels to our modern situation than a story with a neat, antiseptic ending. Why? Because a message of life that challenges the powers of the world is scary, it’s threatening, and it’s dangerous; nobody would tell a story like this if they could ever find the lost pages of the sermon, right? Well, it’s for those very reasons that this is a story we should tell again and again and again.
Death does not have the final word.
Life will prevail.
Good will overcome evil.
It’s a story from the margins.
How many people in our society are scared to tell their truth for fear of being labeled fools?
And yet, here we are, over 2000 years after the women came to the tomb that morning, telling the story of resurrection. We’re here celebrating a God whose love has overcome death, whose subversive message of new life was finally told and heard and told again…and it has endured. It’s a message of women and fools…that changed the world.
The women fled the tomb that day, terrified…and they didn’t say anything.
Except they did.
Somebody in that group found the courage to tell her story to risk being called a fool.
And somebody heard her. And believed her.
This is the story we’re telling today: the unbelievable, totally foolish story of resurrection.
If you have ever felt misrepresented…suppressed…unheard…unappreciated…unhopeful…if you have ever felt unable to tell your truth…if you have ever felt pushed to the margins…the resurrection story is a story for you. Because sometimes the stories that sound the most preposterous are the stories that change the world.
Hope, possibility, life, power…love.
Are you listening to the women’s story?
It’s a story for women and fools, but somebody had the courage to tell it. Now it’s our turn. We’re right to be afraid, to leave with the heavy mandate of saying what so many do not have the courage to say.
But maybe someone will listen.
And maybe we will hear.
And maybe the message of hope and new life will change the world all over again.
May it be so.