Sermon: April 8, 2012
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If there was ever a Resurrection story for doubters and skeptics, it’s this one from Mark. Three women go to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ dead body with the proper burial spices. They arrive, and the huge stone covering the opening has already been rolled away.
When they look inside, they see a young man in a white robe; and they’re alarmed. Why, I wonder? They weren’t alarmed or amazed that the huge stone has been moved away without an explanation.
But for no apparent reason that I can see, they’re upset at a young man sitting in the tomb?!
He tries to reassure them: “Don’t be alarmed. You’re looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. This is where he was. But he has been raised.
Go, tell the disciples that he is going to Galilee, just like he said. They will see him there.” And here’s how the story ends: So the women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
The women accept the movement of the huge stone, but are amazed at a young man sitting in the tomb. We never see the Risen Christ in this story. The women are told to go and tell the Disciples; but in fear and terror, they run off and say nothing to anyone.
It’s a good thing we have the letters of Paul and the other Gospels. Depending on Mark alone would be like,… well,… it would be like all of us in this church depending on the confused and doubt-filled faith of only one of us – to get us through all our daily activities, all our routine struggles and joys, and the occasional deep pains and traumas of human life.
It just can’t be done. No one’s faith is good enough to support everyone else … and that’s particularly true of the faith-picture in Mark, who can’t even give us one little glimpse of the Risen Christ; can’t even give us women disciples of strength and faithful courage; and can’t even include any male disciples anywhere in the story!!!
If you’ll think about it with me now, however, you’ll actually realize that Mark’s skepticism and doubt make a pretty realistic picture of faith in our world. Faith and courage are really, really hard; and they’re not obvious.
NY Times columnist David Brooks told a story a few days ago I’d like to share with you. Last fall, he asked readers over 70 years of age to send him “life reports”: essays evaluating their own lives.
Charles Snelling, whose wife of 61 years, Adrienne, had been diagnosed with Alzheimers 6 years earlier, responded this way:
“61 years ago, a partner in our marriage who knew how to nurture, nurtured a partner who needed nurturing. Now, 61 years later, a partner who is learning how to nurture is nurturing a partner who needs nurturing. She took care of me in every possible way for 55 years. The last 6 years have been my turn.
“We continue to make a life together, living together in the full sense of the word; going about our life, hand in hand. It’s not noble or sacrificial or painful; it’s just right in the scheme of things.”
A week ago, less than 4 months after the NY Times published his essay, Snelling killed his wife and then himself. In the letters to the newspaper, the comments were mostly sympathetic of Snelling’s position, and supportive of his action.
And why not? We’ve all read about the horrors of Alzheimer’s and dementia; some of us have experienced it with friends or family.
Fifteen years ago, I watched my father’s progressive Senile Dementia, as he died slowly of Prostate cancer. I saw what it did to the already fragile relationship with my mother. I saw how it damaged the relationship with my brother, who lived in the same town they did.
And I experienced directly how it just … erased … whatever relationship we had.
I’m not much of a believer in an actual Satan, or a real Anti-Christ. But if there is one, dementia in all its forms is one of my candidates. As a pastor, and as a son, I’ve seen, first-hand, on more than one occasion, the devastation and death dementia can cause.
So it might surprise you to learn that though I deeply and profoundly sympathize with the Snellings, along with David Brooks, I do not agree with Mr. Snelling’s actions.
Let me read a few of Brooks’ own words about this:
Many of the religious arguments against suicide are based on the supposition that life is a gift from God. Our job is not to determine who is worthy of life, but how to make the most of the life we have been given.
Who is to say how Snelling would have felt 4 months from now? The fact is, we are all terrible at imagining how we will feel in the future. We exaggerate how much the future will be like the present. We underestimate the power of temperament to gradually pull us up from the lowest lows.
Given these weaknesses, it seems wrong to make a decision that will foreclose future thinking. It’s better to respect the future, to remain humbly open to your own unfolding.
If you look at life through the calculus of autonomy, then maybe Snelling made the right call.
Maybe his moments of pain would have outnumbered his moments of pleasure.
But if you look at life as one element within a mysterious flow, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Charles and Adrienne Snelling still had a few ripples to create.
I strongly sympathize with the Snellings. But I believe that what he did denies the Resurrection, and denies the hope and grace we find in the Risen Christ.
I freely admit, given Mark’s presentation of the Resurrection, and given our own struggles with faith in difficult situations, Snelling’s choice could seem humanly reasonable. But that’s the point of Easter in the church’s life, and Mark makes it as well as anyone: The resurrection is not reasonable or rational, predictable or expected.
Whether you hear it from a young man in a white robe or the Risen Christ himself, or from a Sunday School teacher, or see evidences of resurrection in our world today …
The Resurrection of Christ is an act of God. However we human beings react to it, it is God defining action for life and for the universe.
Our proper response is to give thanks in gratitude and praise, and then to figure out how to live our lives based on astonishing wonder, super-human hope, and unexpected amazement.
Unexpected Amazement. Astonishing wonderment.
There is a scene in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. It’s a nothing scene, really. It’s set in the Dust Bowl Midwest in the 1930s, like the rest of the novel; but it’s not about the Joads, and it has no effect on whether they will get to California and see the promised land.
An unnamed man with two sons comes to a restaurant; and after they all wash off with the store’s hose in the side yard, the man goes in and tries to buy bread for a dime from the waitress. He can’t afford a 15 cent loaf in a grocery store; he doesn’t have enough money.
As they are haggling about it, the boys see the glass counter, and inside it, the most amazing array of candy imaginable. Here’s how Steinbeck describes it:
The boys edged in behind their father and went immediately to the candy case and stared in – not with craving or hope or even with desire, but just with a kind of wonder that such things could even exist.
Out of hidden generosity, the waitress gives the boys each a stick of 5-cent peppermint candy for only a penny from the dad.
They reached timidly, each took a stick, and they held them down at their sides and did not look at them. But they looked at each other, and their mouth corner’s smiled. They marched out stiffly behind their father, the red-striped sticks held tightly against their legs.
Those boys could not imagine that wealth of candy existed; and to get two whole sticks of it – not just one to share, which would have been incredible itself, but two – was beyond their comprehension.
The profligacy of the world was richly in evidence to those boys.
It was not, evidently, present to Charles Snelling at the end. He probably saw only defeat and despair, and then death.
The profligacy, the generosity, the bounty and munificence of God is evident in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even when we cannot see it directly and absolutely, it is here in real life, if only in hints and intimations:
In someone lovingly caring for an Alzheimer’s-afflicted spouse or parent;
In a busy person shoveling the snow from the walk of an elderly neighbor;
In a retired person reading to under-achieving students at an elementary school in an economically-depressed neighborhood;
In 50-year anniversaries where the couple kisses with unembarrassed, almost lustful abandon;
In the words of an inmate at Angola State Prison in Louisiana, serving a life sentence for murder, and who became a Christian while there – I’m glad our book, the Bible, is so big. Anytime a Christian anywhere in the world does something good, I’m connected to that person through our book;
In a gorgeous Spring morning when your sense of life’s beauty, harmony and decency is so strong that you want to cry out because of the powerful hope and promise God provides.
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is Unexpected: it is the abundant profligacy of God – the grace of God the giver toward us.
Even when you don’t see it – when despair threatens to overcome hope, and amazement and terror send you running in fear, it is still there. It will come to you.
Christ is alive and present – with all of us together, and with each of you.
Christ is risen. We give praise and thanks to God. Amen.