Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Bad News of Easter

“And they went out and led from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one; for they were afraid.” (Mark 16.8)

A few years ago I participated in a seminar with clergy of several different denominations. In a discussion of the passion narratives of the four gospels, the pastor of a large Presbyterian church said, “I think we are embarrassed by the crucifixion.” After a moment of thought, I challenged him. “I don’t think the crucifixion embarrasses us as much as the resurrection. After all, we’ve all seen what the world does to brave people who speak out – they become martyrs. But what we haven’t seen is anyone rise from the dead.” We haven’t seen it; we don’t expect it; and maybe we would not only be embarrassed by it, we might even prefer that it didn’t happen.
Why would that be? Why might we wish the dead to stay dead? Well, for one thing, it’s much safer for all of us if the dead stay safely in their graves. We all admire Dr. King for raising his brave voice against discrimination and prejudice and leading the fight for civil rights. Does anyone not get teary-eyed when they hear his “I have a dream” speech? The nation mourned when he was assassinated in Memphis, and we designated a national holiday in his honor. But could there be just a tiny corner in most hearts that is relieved that he is silent? What might Dr. King have to say to us today? Would he speak out against the terrible disparity between rich and poor? Would he challenge our policies in the Middle East? Our indifference to the AIDS crisis in the developing world? We are familiar with martyrdom; we mourn when the good and the brave are cut down and silenced – the Dietrich Bonhoeffers, the Martin Luther Kings – but would we really want them to come back to challenge our complacency and indifference?
Could it be that Jesus’ disciples felt that way? The gospels tell us that on the morning of the resurrection, the women took spices and other embalming supplies with them to the place where Jesus had been buried. Of course, they were performing the last kindness that one friend can do for another – to prepare his body for its eternal rest. Of course, they were grief-stricken because their friend and teacher had been given a mock trial, tortured by the police, and put to death on the cross. But could they also have been a tiny bit relieved? Could they have thought, “We will miss his stories of good Samaritans and prodigal sons, wise maidens and unjust judges, lilies of the field and seed sown among the rocks and thorns. Who will restore sight to the blind and cleanse lepers, free the possessed from demonic power and .... but neither will he again challenge us to take up the cross, to lose our lives for the sake of the kingdom, to be glad when we are reviled and persecuted. Life is hard enough without that.”
But when they arrived at the tomb, they found it empty. How did they react? Did their hearts leap? Did they dance a jig or burst out in laughter or song because he had risen? The gospels tell us that their reaction was fear. What did they fear? They may have feared the challenges that Jesus had set before them and sets before us -- the challenge to be poor in spirit, to embrace mourning, to hunger and thirst after righteousness, to seek service rather than self-aggrandizement. Life is so much easier without these things. We want comfort, not challenge; ease, not adventure.
By and large, we want life to be stable and predictable. However, we worship a God of surprises. We worship a God who brings down the mighty and lifts up the lowly; who feeds the hungry and sends the rich away empty; who promises us that life abundant and everlasting is to be found not in safety but in risking our lives for the sake of the gospel.
Life is so much easier when we have three meals a day; when we know that General Hospital is always on at one o’clock in the afternoon; when school is out at three and mom or dad comes home from work at five-thirty; when there are drinks at six and dinner at seven. But when a stranger barges into our lives and commands us to drop our nets and follow him; to put down our knitting needles or hammers or turn off our computers and plunge into the great adventure that is God’s plan for the universe –no, that’s a little too much for us. We want to know who will pay for our medical insurance, who will feed the dog or cat, how we will pay the Visa bill, who will pick the kids up after school. Thanks for the parables and miracles; they’re lovely and we’d like to keep them, but we can do without the resurrection.
But surprise, disruption, and resurrection has been God’s plan from the beginning. To be sure, the Israelites were slaves in Egypt; they moaned, they complained, they cried out and God heard them and raised up Moses to lead them out of bondage. But what happened as soon as they were free? “Why have you brought us out of Egypt only to let us die of hunger and thirst in this wilderness?”
Have you heard of Stockholm syndrome? Stockholm syndrome is the tendency of the captive to identify with the captor. It’s the reason that Patty Hearst assisted her captors in robbing banks and other terrorist activities. We saw a shocking example of it a few years ago in the case of Elizabeth Smart, the 14 year old Utah girl who was kidnapped and held for more than a year. When the police finally found her and arrested her kidnappers, she seems to have denied that she was the missing girl, not once but several times.
Captives identify with their captors because it is safer. We naturally assume that we are less likely to be harmed if we blend in, fade into the background of our environment, mouth the ideology of those with power over us. Perhaps this partly explains the reason that many in Russia say that the murderous Stalin was a wise and effective leader or why many Iraqis preferred life under Saddam to their new-found freedom.
We want life to be predictable, and the older we get, the more predictable we want it to be. But God finds ways to surprise, upset, and disrupt us. We prefer the sofa, the television, the internet; in short, we prefer the tomb of our own safety and comfort. But we worship a God of the living, not of the dead, a God who calls us out of the tombs of our own making. We worship a God of resurrection.
Much scholarly ink has been spilled over the ending of Mark’s gospel. There are at least three possible endings for Mark’s gospel, and all of them are well-supported by ancient manuscripts. However, the most likely ending of Mark is also the strangest. More than likely, the last four words of Mark’s original ending were: “and they were afraid”. What an odd, even bizarre ending! Why would the women who went to the tomb, saw an angel sitting there, and heard the outrageously good news of the resurrection flee in terror?
I think we know why. Resurrection seems too good to be true. We do not want to be hurt or disappointed. We want our lives to be safe, predictable, , boring, dead. I know I do!! But God has other plans for us. God’s plan for us is resurrection, surprise, amazement, joy incomprehensible and full of wonder. So lose your fear, forget about comfort, embrace God’s adventure, drop your net and make a mad dash after the mysterious stranger who invites you to participate in God’s magnificent, surprising, and unpredictable plan for your life. Sing, shout the Easter alleluia, dance a jig, for Christ is risen. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!