A sermon preached by the Rev’d Jered Weber-Johnson
Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul, MN
In college I took a trip to Europe as a part of an arts class. Over the course of two weeks we visited Italy and France and England. We saw the great works and masterpieces of Europe, the cumulative artwork of western civilization. And, perhaps of all the things we saw, it was Michelangelo’s “four prisoners” in Florence that most captivated my mind and stirred my heart. Rough hewn and incomplete, the master’s meditations on the human form emerging from the stone were riveting for me. Michelangelo loved to work freehand, and as he did so, working his subject from the front, the form within the stone would slowly be revealed like a body coming out of the water. Yet none of these four were finished, bodies twisted into dramatic expressions of deep human emotion, the subjects remained partially locked in the marble as a thought mostly formed but not fully expressed.
I have always found art more convincing than argument. Perhaps that is why I gravitated in young adulthood away from the more doctrinal and confessional faith of evangelicalism toward the form and liturgy of the Episcopal Church. Ask an Episcopalian what it is the Episcopal Church believes about suffering or salvation, and she will likely point you to the liturgies found in the Book of Common Prayer. Here we are much more confident in expressing the profundities of spiritual experience through the poetry of the Psalms, through the imagery and metaphor of our prayers, through hymns and the movement of our bodies in worship, than we are in formularies and dogmas. As the Christian mystic Thomas Merton once noted, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘trying to solve the problem of God is like trying to see your own eyes’.
Attempts to systematically explain or define God almost always fall short or fail entirely. Perhaps this is why most of the Bible, our own holy writ, speaks in image and metaphor, using poetry and prose to tell of the deeds of God. Even our gospels, the record of the life and death of Jesus, are told not as a systematic explanation of the Divine life found in human form, but as a story. Like so many other forms of art, indeed like so much of life, stories are meant to evoke feelings and challenge us to think in new ways. And, like Michelangelo’s prisoners, incomplete and unresolved, stories too can be provocative in their breadth of meaning and ambiguity. Such is the case this morning.
The Easter story from Mark, as it is given to us today, ending as it does at verse 8 with an empty tomb, the promise that Jesus is risen, and the women fleeing in terror and amazement is just such a provocation. It is, to say the least, an open-ended and ambiguous conclusion to the story. If the gospel was intended to end here, as scholars agree it was, then Mark, unlike the other gospels is stingy with the conclusion. In Mark’s telling the earth does not shake and dazzling lights do not shine – there are no happy reunions between Jesus and his disciples, no explanation to those disciples of what his death and resurrection mean for them – no tears or hugs or last words of encouragement. It would appear that Mark had little interest in proving that Jesus is risen, and thus he leaves us, like the disciples, confronted with the complexities and vagaries of an empty tomb.
Such an ending does not immediately evoke the expected Easter feelings of confidence and joy, the wonder, excitement, and even relief we hope to feel after bearing witness to the pain of Good Friday. As Craig Lemming quoted in his sermon this Holy Week, philosopher Theodor Adorno says “dissonance is the truth about harmony.” In Mark’s gospel, the empty tomb hangs like a discordant note at the end of a symphony. It begs to be resolved. Such a dissonance unsettles us and so our ears strain toward harmony. Just as the empty tomb unsettled those women who came to anoint Jesus’ body, it should trouble us too.
And yet, I’d be willing to wager, most of us do not come to this beautiful spring day, decked in our Sunday’s best, looking to be provoked and troubled. We come to the tomb today already grieving. The world has enough pain and trouble all its own. We only need to look back over the past month to see tragedies like the downing of Germanwings flight 9525 or mass shootings at Garissa University in Kenya. Ours is a world where good people are given bad news every day. So we come to Easter, our lives located on a razors edge, teetering between hope and anxiety, between the hope that God really has beaten death, and the fear that all of this so called good news might be crushed in an instant. This is the challenge with which the empty tomb confronts us. We have seen the dominion of death, how our fear of loss can drive us to cynicism and even cruelty. But we have also seen Easter at work in the world. The family who has been given a tragic prognosis for one of their members one day, decides to cook a feast the next day – “we’re going to celebrate life while we can” they say. The victim of abuse who finds the courage to speak out, the convict on death row who gets their Masters degree in prison, the recovering addict who makes it sober through another day – this is Easter – where once there was only death, now there is new life and new possibility.
The empty tomb looms in our vision as an unfinished story, the good news hewn out of the rock, but not fully expressed. It is a risky proposition, this empty tomb, and it places us in the unfinished story. Who knows what yet-to-be-seen consequences lie just over the horizon beyond our line of sight where we stand at the opening of that cave? We might, justifiably, like those women did, flee in terror. Or, we who have seen glimmers of the resurrection might also see the empty tomb for the invitation that it is. Jesus is no longer here, the angel assures us. He has gone on ahead. Imagine the story of new life and possibility we might tell if we were but to follow.
Alleluia! The Lord is risen.
The Lord is risen, indeed. Alleluia!