Monday, April 13, 2009

Easter in a Minor Key

A Sermon by Greg Ledbetter | April 12, 2009 | Easter Sunday

Scripture: Mark 16:1-8

It was twenty two years ago today: the date was April 12th, 1987. I was in the third year of my first pastorate in rural Vermont. It was my older son Jordan’s first birthday. I have a very clear memory of that day because I spent a part of it fishing in the nearby Poultney River with my best friend Steve who was out visiting from Washington State. As it turns out, we were fishing in an intermittent snowfall ... which can be a typical spring day in Vermont.

Here in California on this spring day our tulips are well past perfection while our daffodils are already a fading memory. Our frost sensitive vegetables are in the ground and we’re already circling dates on the calendar when we can expect our first ripe tomatoes. So pity poor Trevor and his fellow Vermont statespersons who might have to scratch through a spring snow to plant their peas … snow peas.

Easter in Vermont was, well … different than here. A quick drive through an average Vermont village would make that evident. There is an odd New England custom of hanging inflatable bunnies in a wide array of garish colors in the branches of small trees. But more than that, some years, Vermonters must celebrate the resurrection while the soil is still thawing, while the dirty piles of snow are still melting, while the ice is just breaking up on the lakes, and while the crocus’ have not yet broken into the spring sunlight. Vermonters like to say they have only two seasons, really: 11 months of winter and one month of darned poor sledding. In this setting, Easter must wrestle with nature’s ambivalence about whether spring will come and summer to follow or whether winter shall return and defeat the rising energies of this liveliest of seasons. In such a setting, you tend to take Easter as you can get it.

And when, every third year, Mark’s version of the resurrection story came around, it may be that the mood of the reading best matched what was likely going on outside the church.

Mark’s gospel is the first-written of the four gospels. It is also the shortest of the gospels and it was written under the harshest of conditions … in the harshest of times. And so it may not surprise us as we read Mark’s description of the “great triumph of life over death” that it comes off sounding a little … somber.

If Mark’s was the only description of the resurrection that we had, this is what a hymn for the day might sound like: [“Christ the Lord is Risen Today” is sung in a minor key.] I would say that the story of Jesus’ resurrection in the hands of Mark could be described as “Easter in a Minor Key”. If for Mark, Easter was a “triumph” … it was a triumph with a limp and a sad smile.

Seven Easters among the good people of my first pastorate impressed upon me a mostly non-triumphalistic outlook on this high, holy Christian day. The nitty-gritty realism of life never took enough of a holiday in that place to ever allow the Easter Alleluia’s to echo for too long.

It would not at all be fair to say that the Good Friday world prevailed and Easter failed to take hold in that place and time … it is to say that our belief in and celebration of the resurrection was tempered by matters mirrored by the weather, but far more important than the weather. This could also be said, of course, of a small Baptist church on the outskirts of Tracy whose celebration of the resurrection this morning must be a minor key celebration to say the very least.

Mark’s story of the resurrection shows that this “decisive victory of God in Christ” must take root in the frigid soil of real life where traumas and challenges know every season and take no holidays.

But as we enter the final movement of Mark’s story and as we draw near to the experience of the last characters to stand on the stage of this dramatic telling … it helps if we pause to appreciate what might be on the minds of the two women who have come to deal with Jesus’ body … coming with spices to cover up the ominous stench of death. Here’s what they and all the other followers of Jesus in hiding know: “Jesus crucifixion has brought … closure on a world-embracing dream. They were making peace not only with the death of a person but with the death of God, and with the death of Jesus’ claim to embody the reign of God for the well-being of the world.”

And when a young man dressed in white and sitting in the now empty tomb shatters with his words the women’s sense of the finality of Jesus’ death … what is their response? How would you respond? The very last words of Mark’s telling of the Good News of Jesus are: “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.”

So let us take note that in Mark, once Jesus breathes his last, he never reappears … no breakfasts on the beach … no strolls on the road to Emmaus … no shocking the disciples by walking through locked doors and showing off the wounds of the crucifixion—those are all in the other three gospels.

The main message of the empty tomb for Mark wasn’t to “show off a resuscitated corpse” … it was to point the disciples toward what resurrection would mean for them in the days and years ahead. Jesus has taken leave of center stage so that he can be reborn in the hearts, lives, motives and ministry of his followers.

The focus of the Good News of Jesus consists of taking up one’s cross or the cross of another—three times Mark uses this phrase in his gospel … the Good News consists of going to the mission fields of Galilee and beyond … it consists of following the Spirit of Jesus where ever he leads knowing that he has the “imprimatur” of God who will not allow death to have the last word.

We can assume that the sun rose over the empty tomb on Easter morning at its normal speed. But there was another dawning that occurred at a much slower rate: it was the slow dawning of the awareness that even if Jesus no longer physically dwelt with them, his presence remained among and within them.

Coming to grips with any gains that follow any loss takes a long time. Consider your own losses as I consider mine … and consider the first few days … weeks … months … even years following those losses. The pain of loss is acute and therefore ALL seems lost. It is only as times passes and our pain slowly diminishes and begins to heal that the essence of the one lost begins to reassert itself. Something remains. Something is revealed. We have something that we didn’t have before. It is more than the memory of the one lost … it more than what we’ve done for ourselves or others have done for us. It is a new strength and a new wholeness that can come upon us when the God of Resurrection is allowed into our pain and allowed into our loss. “Stronger in the broken places” Is how some describe the “Eastering” of a broken soul. We might well say that the Resurrection is not so much about an end to mortality as it is the end of death’s deadly grip on our souls and our future days.

In the Lenten season just past, we have not only been aware of our own brokenness as any season of introspection can do, but we have been especially aware of those broken as Jesus was broken on crosses of suffering and pain, crosses of cruelty and oppression. And if Mark is to be our guide into the truthful energies of the Resurrection, he will say that the Resurrection is about the life and spirit of Jesus being re-birthed in us and find expression in our world through us … Jesus’ life and vision and values flourishing in us like a seed planted in once frigid soil that, once the radiance of love warms it, is a place where that seed can sprout and flourish and bear fruit no matter how long and deep the winter before had been.

In didn’t take long in my early years of ministry to become deeply aware of the struggles of the people with whom I lived and worked. Life for so many was so hard. Even as a young pastor I had already seen the debilitating effects of life on my parishioners … cancer … arthritis … spousal abuse … depression … suicide … alcoholism.

It was just before Easter at this time that I first heard George Winston’s gorgeous and stirring re-creation of the very familiar Pachebel’s Canon. And when I heard Winston’s rendition, I had an immediate “Easter vision” in which all who labored so terribly under their burdens might, in a healing instant, be freed of those burdens. In particular I thought of one beloved church member, an elderly woman so stooped by her arthritis that she lived life as bent as a question mark … and in the mind’s eye of my Easter imagination she was set free from that excruciating condition of her daily existence. And in my mind’s eye … she danced … she whirled and spun and leaped in delight.

And while such an event is beyond my earthly sight, I did see the burdens of my people lifted and healed in another way—in a way utterly consistent with Mark’s vision of his Risen Lord. It was by the coming together in love and compassionate ministry, one wounded soul with another, each becoming in his or her own way a wounded healer, overcoming the fragmenting nature of pain, overcoming loss, overcoming limitation by coming together in mutual ministry and care.

Easter most truly comes when we push past the need to believe in the resurrection of a body to a place of mind and heart and volition where we allow the resurrection of Jesus to occur and re-occur in and among us. It may be an Easter in a Minor Key, but it’s Easter that is so very real … it’s an Easter that you CAN see and touch and hold.

Let us BE the resurrected body of Christ.