Sunday, April 5, 2015

Phil Kniss: Easter seizure

Easter Sunday morning
John 20:1-18, Mark 16:1-8

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I think I say something like this
    at the beginning of almost every Easter sermon:
    “I am more than ready for Easter.”
Every year I can hardly wait for the church to proclaim
    loudly and confidently,
    death doesn’t win . . . life wins.
Have we ever needed such a message more than we do this year?
    That’s what I thought last Easter,
        after that winter of record cold temperatures,
        and what seemed like a record number of tragedies,
            some of which hit this community . . . hard.

And again, today, I could recite a litany of evidence,
    that we’ve never needed the message of Easter more than now.
    In world headlines just this week—
        more religiously-motivated violence kills 148 in Kenya,
        war erupting again in Yemen,
        plane accidents, mudslides,
            another typhoon slamming into the Philippines today.
        a polarized and paralyzed political system,
        unable to address real crises of injustice with immigration,
            and a host of other important issues.
    A church deeply divided,
        and I’m not just referring to MCUSA.
        Churches of all kinds facing off against each other,
            and against the faithful of other religions.
    And on a personal level, more suffering
        from illness and abuse and brokenness of all kinds
            in our families and churches and communities
            than there ever should be.

In the midst of all this, we struggle, desperately, to hold on to hope.
    But then Easter comes.
    We have this amazing resurrection story,
        and we have reason to hope again.
    Good reason.
        For life triumphs over death.

And I’m particularly grateful that the Spirit saw fit
    to leave us with more than one resurrection story in the Gospels.
We are in Year B—the second year of a 3-year lectionary cycle.
    Each year we focus on a different Gospel—
        Matthew, Mark, then Luke.
        The Gospel of John gets spread evenly across all 3 years.
    This is the year for Mark.

    And for the Easter Sunday morning resurrection story,
        we are always given 2 choices—
            either John 20, or the other Gospel of the year.
    At Park View we often go with the John option,
        because of its drama, its poetic power,
        and because Barbara has internalized it
            for telling so beautifully.
    But the Mark resurrection story also deserves attention,
        so I am going to attend to it now,
        along with the John story.

Strictly from a story-telling perspective,
    I find the Mark resurrection story perhaps the most compelling.
    It’s the shortest of them all—just 8 verses in chapter 16.
    A lot is left unsaid.
        So what is Mark saying, by what he’s choosing not to say?
    In the King James it’s a longer story, goes all the way to v. 20.
    But nearly every modern translation has a footnote after v. 8,
        telling you the earliest, most reliable manuscripts stop at v. 8.
    The NIV puts 9-20 in a small italics font.
        These verses were added later, by an unknown editor,
            probably to make the Mark story consistent with the others.
        Nothing wrong with that longer story.
        It’s just not the way Mark told it.

So, we heard already this morning the John story,
    where Mary stayed weeping outside the tomb,
        and met and spoke with Jesus,
        who instructed her to go tell the other disciples,
        and she went, bearing powerful witness,
            “I have seen the Lord!”

With that story in mind,
    let’s hear Mark tell it.
In Mark, Mary went with two other women,
    to anoint Jesus’ body with the required spices,
    and upon finding the grave empty,
        they spoke not with Jesus,
        but with a young man in a white robe sitting in the tomb.
    This man also gave the women instructions, and I quote:
    “‘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.”

End of story. End of chapter. End of the Gospel of Mark.

It’s probably obvious why an editor wanted to finish the story.
    The question is, why Mark didn’t.
    We know from the other Gospels,
        that the women did not keep it secret very long.
    They told. Word got around. Jesus made more appearances.
        He talked to his disciples.
        And he ascended into heaven.
    Pretty much the way it says in verses 9-20.
        But the Gospel writer is a storyteller.
        And stories like this are told with purpose.

    Mark chose to have this story end
        with three women mute and dumbstruck by the resurrection,
        seized with terror and amazement.

Their world was turned upside-down.
We don’t have an accurate mental image of their walk to the tomb.
    We picture a Sunday morning walk in a garden,
        with lilies blooming,
        the sun peeking over the horizon,
            its rays forming a perfect sunburst against the sky,
        and three women sprinkling perfume and spices
            on Jesus’ wrapped up body,
        spending a few quiet and sacred moments in grief,
            paying homage to a dear friend.
    That’s an image that works on a Hallmark card.
        But it’s not true.

    This was no walk in a park.
    They were there to do a most unpleasant job.
    This was agonizingly difficult work,
        done on the first day of the work week,
        because it couldn’t be done earlier, on the Sabbath.
    The job of these women was to unwrap Jesus’ lifeless body,
        dead in the tomb two days,
            wash it,
            rub in the anointing oil and spices,
            and re-wrap it and put it back where it belonged.

    These women were intent on one thing –
        to do what had to be done to give Jesus a proper burial,
        and then to get out of there,
            and get on with figuring out what life would be like
            without Jesus in it.
    Now, they were presented with a whole new reality
        and it overtook them.
    I like the way Mark puts it,
        “Terror and amazement seized them.”
        They were seized by the resurrection.
        You could say, they had a seizure.
            An Easter seizure.
    The Greek word used there is ek-stasis
        It means, literally, a standing out of one’s usual mind.
            It’s a state of being out of your senses.
            In a trance.
        It’s the same word used to describe the people’s reaction
            when Jesus raised a 12-year-old girl from the dead.
        And to describe Peter when he fell into a trance
            on a rooftop in the book of Acts,
            when he received his vision of unclean animals.
    Mary and Mary and Salome
        were struck senseless by the news of Jesus’ resurrection.
        Because of their intense fear and amazement,
            they were unable to make any kind of rational decision
                at that moment.
        They were seized by this truth.

Being seized is unnerving.
    It can be a negative or positive.
    But it is always unnerving.
When you are seized, you are not in control.
    Control over yourself and your situation is taken from you.
When you are seized, everything else is secondary in importance.
When you are seized, it is impossible to be indifferent about it.

Whether you are being physically seized, or emotionally seized,
    or intellectually seized by some revolutionary idea . . .
        when we are seized with something,
            everything else fades in importance,
            and is viewed through the lens of that which is seizing us.
    I want to be seized by resurrection.
    This year, more than ever.
    When news of violence and suffering fills the air,
        when the brokenness of this world envelops me in darkness,
        when evil threatens to cloud my thinking or overtake my spirit,
    I want to be seized, again, with resurrection.

    I want to be like the two Marys and Salome,
        and walk into a situation where all appears to be lost,
            but there find resurrection.
        I want to see life, when confronted with death.

I want the reality of Jesus’ resurrection to so overtake me,
    that it’s impossible for me to see the world through any other eyes,
    that it’s impossible for me to be indifferent about it.

I wonder if that’s what the author of Mark wanted for his readers.
    I wonder if Mark the Gospel writer
        wanted those first reading that Gospel,
        the early Christians threatened daily with death,
            under the most severe persecution and suffering,
            to relive the experience of these women, vicariously,
                when their deep grief and despair settled in,
                and were seized by this new reality that Jesus was alive,
                and all the wonderful and terrible things that meant.
    I wonder if Mark wanted these readers to be left,
        after hearing this Gospel,
            wondering what that resurrection means for me,
                in my own time of suffering and grief and fear.

    I’m convinced the ending of this Gospel
        is not about these women being afraid to speak.
    We all know,
        the readers of the Gospel knew,
        that the women did, in fact, speak, and speak boldly.

But the question hangs in the air for them,
    and for us still.
    What are we going to do with this reality
        of life in the face of death?
    Will we let it seize us, too?
    Will we let it be the one thing that looms larger than anything else?
    Will we let it change how we see the world?

This year, I don’t want to hold either death or resurrection
    at arm’s length.
    I want the courage to go to the tomb when I need to,
        on the first day of my work week, if need be,
        to deal with unpleasant realities when I’m called on to do so.
    It’s only there, face-to-face with death,
        that I can be surprised and seized by resurrection.

This year, again, I need an Easter that will seize me.
    I need an Easter that will grab hold of me, and not let me go.
        That will remind me, every moment of every day,
            that death loses, and life wins,
            that violence loses, and peace wins,
            that despair loses, and hope wins,
            that depression loses, and joy wins,
            that oppression loses, and freedom wins,
            that disease loses, and wholeness wins,
            that the kingdom of Satan—
                and all who work for that kingdom,
                knowingly or unknowingly—loses,
                and Kingdom of God wins.

Maybe not today.
Maybe not in the way I want it to, or when I want it to.
    But it will win.
    Resurrection trumps crucifixion.

I believe it.
Today I celebrate it.
And tomorrow, and every day,
    I pray I will be seized by that good news.
And I pray that the church will be seized,
    and will boldly proclaim,
        even in the face of brokenness and sin and death,
        “Death has been swallowed up in victory!
            Christ is Risen. Alleluia! Alleluia!

—Phil Kniss, April 5, 2015

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