On the Threshold of the Tomb: An Easter Sermon
On the Threshold of the Tomb: An Easter Meditation (in the Age of Coronavirus)
April 12, 2020
Rev. Dr. Andrew Kukla
Video of this sermon is available here: https://youtu.be/gAV0CYWfCyY?t=870
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.
Two years ago I was standing over the grill, cooking hotdogs. It was Holy Saturday— that day between the death and the resurrection when we sit in the despair and exhaustion of Friday. It was also March 31st… the day before April Fool’s Day. I was already over the “Jesus’ death as an April Fool’s joke” memes. In fact I wasn’t ready for Easter at all. I wasn’t feeling Easter. That does not surprise me. I generally believe we sit too briefly in Saturday—indeed, if possible, skip right from Palm Sunday to Easter. Sitting in grief is not a comfortable place, and we are generally a people used to comfort. We are so used to comfort that we are not good at telling the difference between the discomfort of less than fully comforted life and the dis-ease of true hardship. And so…we struggle to sit in a place of discomfort, we struggle to stay silent and not fill the air with noise, we struggle not to run around filling brokenness with things that will disguise the lack, we struggle not to control what cannot be controlled because we are still more comfortable with the illusion of “I’m fine” than with the pain of admitting we are not and we don’t know how (or if) that will change. And that is as easy to see as looking at the average attendance of an Easter Sunday versus a Good Friday. We show up for Easter, even if it’s only for a photoshoot with the lilies and to revel at the brass quintets.
So, there I was two years ago, standing over my grill. Standing over hotdogs and saying to myself…I don’t want to Easter. I just don’t feel “in the mood,” it just doesn’t feel real…I’m not ready for Easter. And then I looked at myself and wondered: how do you get up in front of a bunch of people who came to hear “He is Risen…he is risen indeed” when you aren’t sure it’s true or real, or that it is the prevailing truth of our lives?
And then, as I stood over my grill, what was spoken on my heart by the Spirit who makes these texts come alive in ways far more profound than any preacher ever could, what I heard in my heart, was:
“This is exactly when Easter gets proclaimed.”
We don’t need Easter if everything is going well.
We don’t’ need Easter if Jesus doesn’t die.
We don’t need Easter if Rome isn’t a problem.
We don’t need Easter if there aren’t hungry people on the street.
We don’t need Easter if there aren’t people who can’t get housing.
We don’t need Easter if we are already living together in peace and harmony.
We don’t proclaim Easter when everything is ok, when we are in the mood, when we are ready.
Easter comes at exactly that moment when it seems the most impossible.
Easter is Easter, Resurrection is Resurrection, because what we expect when we walk into the tomb is that everything we care about is dead or dying.
That was the year that solidified my love for Mark’s Gospel. Mark’s resurrection story is raw and unrefined. You might say it lacks theological softening of its hard edges because it’s young and it’s immediate and it cares a little less for what we do with the story.
Years and years and years ago, while I was pastoring in Florida, I spent a week at Columbia Theological Seminary as a Thompson Scholar and we spent a week thinking about evangelism in our current context. I read a lot of books on evangelism, and I disliked almost all of them. The writers of said books almost always paint themselves as saying the perfect thing at the perfect moment. And you know what? Most of us, most of the time, walk out of a conversation and about ten minutes later we slap our knee and say, “Now I know what I should have said!”
Right? We are all eloquent and excellent rhetoricians right after it no longer matters!
Except in those books. In a lot of books. And what I began to imagine—maybe it’s my own ego that doesn’t want to believe they are all that much better than I am at being articulate on their feet—is that when you write the book, you write what you wished you had said in that moment.
You with me? That’s the refined discourse of writing in the present tense about a past moment. And it may be helpful, but it isn’t raw. And sometimes? It isn’t real.
This is what I mean about Mark’s Gospel. His resurrection story is…raw, unrefined, and real.
We have all the elements we expect in such a story:
It’s early. The sabbath is finally over. The women rush to properly bury Jesus.
We have a rolled-away stone. We have an empty tomb. We have a divine messenger to add this all up to tell us what it means: Jesus has been raised from the dead.
But you know what isn’t there? We don’t get joy. We don’t get obedience, at least not in the parameters of how this story is told. We get Absolute. Utter. Complete. Terror.
“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.”
And that is where the story ends. No Easter Lilies. No Brass Quintets.
It ends in Absolute. Utter. Complete. Terror.
In fact, the end is so horribly unacceptable that from the time of the other Gospel writers to this very moment we have tried to imagine that Mark missed something: that we’ve lost the original ending that he meant to share. And tradition has added endings to try to “fix” the brokenness of his provided ending. We can’t have a Sunday filled with discontent.
You see now what I mean about Mark and his relationship with his other Evangelists? He doesn’t refine the story. He doesn’t clean it up. He doesn’t give us a retrospective lens that greets the resurrection with all the confidence of generations who have grown up starting the story by knowing how it ends.
Mark gives us an Absolute. Utter. Complete. Terrifying. Raw experience of the resurrection. And he leaves us there. In that liminal space on the threshold of the tomb wondering: is this real?
… is this real?
This wasn’t supposed to be Mark’s year.
I try to stay to the lectionary with my Gospel accounts of the birth and death narratives. It keeps us more well-rounded in our sense of all that might be said and known of these ancient stories. And, as the lectionary does, we sprinkle a good bit of John in there every year. This was supposed to be Matthew’s year. And I grew up a Matthew guy. I mean, I like how he tells the story. It has narrative flow, it is well crafted pedagogically to impart all the theological moorings a good Christian systematic theologian would want to see and hear in Jesus’ story. Matthew and I are good buddies. And this was supposed to be Matthew’s year.
But we aren’t living Easter from Matthew’s perspective this year, are we?
The reason I told that story from two years ago is because I think that in the midst of pandemic, economic collapse, restrictive freedom to outright marshal law across the globe, most of us aren’t really feeling Easter. We are in a raw moment. We are in the place where the best we can muster is: Absolute. Complete. Terror. And in that place I do not think what we need right now are cleaned-up stories. I do not think what we need right now are “correct systematic theology” and a well-wrought narrative. Because what of our story looks like a well-wrought narrative?
I think we need Mark’s Gospel. I think we need to recognize that we stand on the threshold of the tomb…and that is the best we can muster right now.
So many of us are lamenting that we cannot gather in our Sanctuaries for in-person worship on this Easter Sunday; and that is a good, truly felt, lament. I had a strange moment planning Easter Worship, trying to imagine how to have the focus to write a sermon, and I was reminded that a year ago we Eastered and then left our Sanctuary for four months while it was renovated. A year ago, it was all torn up the day after Easter and it was beautifully renovated…and today we aren’t gathering in that Sanctuary.
Can you Easter in such a way? That’s what we asked. And I know that many people are planning to actually Easter when we finally get back in our Sanctuaries. And that is authentic for them; I have no need or desire to be critical. But, friends…this is when Easter really happens. This is the most real Easter you have ever likely come to worship for. Because Easter has great disdain for buildings, be they temples or monuments. Easter comes not to the hopeful but to the hopeless. Easter is meant to happen in graveyards, not concert halls. Easter is real in hospitals and for first responders, not theologians and florists and photographers.
We are standing on the threshold of the tomb…with Mary…with Salome…and we are hearing that Jesus is raised. That Jesus is alive. That abundant life is still the final word.
And we aren’t sure that we believe it. Because what we are still feeling is:
Utter. Complete. Total. Terror.
And I think that’s right.
I’m afraid. My heart is heavy with the cries of the earth for the blood of God’s children. My soul is sick with the fatal fatigue of my neighbors who aren’t just on the threshold of the tomb but are fully in its grasp. My body feels the weight of exile and the emptiness of our cathedrals.
And I’m afraid because I do not know how abundant life becomes real in this space. Because Holy Saturday holds more sway at this moment than an empty tomb does.
In one of my favorite books of all time, Insurrection: To Believe is Human, To Doubt, Divine, author/philosopher/pyro-theologian Peter Rollins writes: “Resurrection is not something one argues for, but it is the name we give to a mode of living. Resurrection neither negates the Crucifixion nor moves beyond it. There is good reason why believers continue to wear a cross around their neck rather than dismiss it as something that lies forever behind them. The one who has participated in the Crucifixion remains indelibly marked by it. The Resurrection is the mode of life that arises from its very embrace.” Elsewhere Rollins will say,
“I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.
“However, there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.”
That is an Easter story fashioned after Mark’s own heart. That is an Easter story walking in the way of Jesus, who does not deny grief or death but enters into it: because this is the only place Easter CAN happen.
The women fled in terror. Mark ends there. Don’t fix that. Don’t clean that up. We all want, and deserve, to run in terror. In good time—not day one, but in good time—those women stood and testified to what they had seen and heard. They must have, because we know the story. In good time, embracing the crucifixion’s reality, they testified that life still proved stronger; and they lived that story—the whole story—from the tombs of their world, which lends power to the raw realness of the story; and they lived it for each other, for their neighbors, for God. They made resurrection not about temples, or doctrines, or brass quintets and beautiful flowers. They made resurrection about how they lived their life on the threshold of the tomb.
Are we ready to make the resurrection real? It won’t happen here. It’s already happened. Around you, behind you, in front of you…in you. Affirm the resurrection: not in how we tell the story, but in how we live it.
This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God.