MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
March 25, 2012
“A Religion of Unachievement”
The ending of the gospel of Mark is surprising. As you will see if you are reading along in the pew Bible, there is a shorter ending and then a longer ending that come after this. But those were added later. Centuries later. The very best manuscripts we have of the gospel of Mark has it ending at verse 8, which is what I will be reading.
Listen to this:
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.
That’s the whole resurrection story according to Mark, the earliest gospel. Matthew and Luke came 10-15 years later, which means that for a decade or more, this was the final word on Jesus’ resurrection:
They went out and fled from the tomb. Terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
Ah, but then come the shorter and longer endings, to rescue us from paralysis and get our heroes moving again! Yes, of course. But as I read those new endings, I’m reminded of the Harry Potter world. The great wizard Professor Dumbledore had a wonderful device in his office called a pensieve. A pensieve stored memories, that you could view like a video recording and the memories would be as vivid as the day they happened. The problem is that people can tamper with those memories when they want to forget or cover up what really happened. You can tell a memory has been altered because they are a little fuzzier, a bit more vague. They don’t have that clarity or authenticity.
Now, there is a kernel of truth in Mark’s supplemental endings. Obviously the disciples did go and tell somebody, eventually, otherwise we wouldn’t be here two thousand years later. But I read those tacked on endings and they seem a little fuzzy, a little hastily composed, a little too willing to zoom past the fear and amazement and go right to the triumph of those brave disciples who shared the good news with the whole wide world, God love ‘em!
No… I want to stay with the original ending for a while. Because that ending feels very real and true to me. Of all four gospel accounts of the resurrection, this one might just be the one for us.
If you’ve ever wanted to keep your faith a secret because of embarrassment at what other people might think, this version will suit you quite well.
If you’ve ever chosen the comfort of the life you love over a life lived in risky faith to a wandering revolutionary, this is your story.
If you’ve ever asked yourself WWJD and known the answer but still not done it, welcome to Mark 16:8. There’s a lot of us who’ve taken up residence in this verse, stiff with fear, shuffling around scared and muttering to ourselves.
Meanwhile we croon to one another on a beautiful spring day: Christ is risen! I do it too—it’s such a nerdy church thing, but I love the singsong response, He is risen indeed. It’s comfortable and familiar.
And then I remember.
“He is not here,” says the messenger. Jesus is OUT! What was dead is now alive again, and everything we know about endings and beginnings is for naught, and nothing will ever be the same, neither you nor I.
Darn right they were afraid.
Brian Blount says, “Fear is a natural reaction to discipleship whose content is the way of the cross. If you’re not afraid, you don’t understand.”
If he’s dead in the tomb, we can follow his teachings, and they’re beautiful and they make the world a lovelier place. But if he is alive… then there is a power that’s loose in the world that shatters the rules—a power we cannot explain, control, or understand.
And that’s scary.
The preacher Tony Campolo has talked about fear and failure. It’s his story, but it’s one we’ve heard all too often lately.
When I was in High School there was a kid who was gay. We made fun of him. You would say we bullied him, but we didn’t push him or hit him, we just made fun of him. Well, we did bully him.
Friday afternoons we had Phys Ed. and when we’d all go in to the showers he was afraid to go. And when he did go in all by himself, we waited with our wet towels and when he came out we whipped him with our towels and stung his naked body.
I wasn’t there the Friday when they grabbed little Roger and dragged him into the shower room and shoved him into the corner, and as he doubled over in the fetal position, five guys urinated all over him. He went home and he went to bed at about 10:00, his parents said. It was about 2:00 in the morning when he got up and went into the basement of his house and he hanged himself.
It was at that point that I knew I was not a Christian. Oh, I believed the Bible. I believed the Apostle’s Creed word for word. I was sound, I was solid, I was orthodox. But if I were a Christian, I would have been Roger’s friend.
And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
* * *
It’s happened again like clockwork: another magazine article published the week of Easter, something designed to capitalize on people’s religious curiosity in order to sell magazines. These articles usually deal with some archaeological discovery; last year it was a set of nails that may have been those used on the cross of Christ. This year, it’s Christianity itself that is the fossil.
Newsweek’s cover article is called “Christianity in Crisis: Why we should ignore politicians, priests, and get-rich evangelists, and just follow him.” According to the author, a Catholic named Andrew Sullivan, Christianity is on the ropes: fewer people are attending church or professing faith. People claiming no religious affiliation is at an all-time high, and growing year by year.
Meanwhile the message of Christ has been coopted by political leaders: “On one side, the Republican base is made up of evangelical Protestants who believe that religion must consume and influence every aspect of public life. On the other side, the last Democratic primary had candidates profess their faith in public forums, and more recently President Obama appeared at the National Prayer Breakfast, invoking Jesus to defend his plan for universal health care.”
In contrast to these Christian power-grabs, Sullivan lifts up the example of St. Francis of Assisi, a man whose faith and gentleness are legendary. Francis “insisted on living utterly without power over others. As stories of his strangeness and holiness spread, more joined him and he faced a real dilemma: how to lead a group of men, and also some women, in an organization… And it tormented, wracked, and almost killed him. He had to be last, not first. He wanted to be always the ‘lesser brother,’ not the founder of an order. And so he would often go on pilgrimages and ask others to run things. Or he would sit at the feet of his brothers at communal meetings and if an issue could not be resolved without his say-so, he would whisper in the leader’s ear.”
This is the kind of humble discipleship we see in the gospel of Mark, through the lives of the women who were unwavering in their devotion to Jesus. They go to the tomb to anoint the body of their friend, and one question is on their lips: “Who will roll away the stone?”
As they gather up their spices… “Who will roll away the stone?”
As they tie their coverings on their heads… “Who will roll away the stone?”
As they make their way through the deserted early-morning streets, with the sunrise in their faces: “Who will roll away the stone?”
They don’t figure out ahead of time how they’ll manage it.
They don’t say “Eh, that stone’s too heavy,” and decide not to go.
They just gather up their supplies and trundle down the road, shoulder to shoulder.
They do that one small thing they’re able to do.
They go right up to the limits of their own ability.
They go, knowing that they may be thwarted by a big immovable object.
They go, knowing it may be a fool’s errand for them to go. But go they must. Because the anointing is theirs to do—a small, beautiful thing.
They go in hope and possibility that even though they are too weak to move that stone, maybe something might budge it.
And behold… the Way opens up for them. And it’s astounding.
Andrew Sullivan concludes his article by talking about the saints of our faith.
[They] became known as saints not because of their success in fighting political battles, or winning a few news cycles, or funding an anti-abortion super PAC.
[Their] Christianity comes not from the head or the gut, but from the soul. It is as meek as it is quietly liberating. It doesn’t seek worldly recognition, or success, and it flees from power and wealth. It is the religion of unachievement.
The religion of unachievement creeps up on the moment, spices in hand, because that is what love requires.
The religion of unachievement stands alongside the gay teenager and says, “That’s enough. Stop.”
The religion of unachievement is in the whispering of St. Francis, or in a Birmingham jail with Dr. King, or in the church that’s opened itself to the day laborers who congregate near their building, or in a million other places where people may be afraid, but they are not fearful—afraid, but not full-of-fear.
Where will we live out this religion of unachievement? We, who crow “Christ is risen… he is risen indeed”? Because if Mark is our resurrection story, then we have to write the next section. Thanks to a quirk in the original Greek, the gospel of Mark ends with the word “for.” It is a conjunction: that bit of grammar that connects two thoughts together. The story ends in a fragment. What will the next section be?
At home this week we were talking about Easter, and my four year old said, “Jesus died on the cross because people were mad at him.”
I asked, “Then what happened, James?”
He said, “Jesus is alive again.”
And I said, “What an amazing story.”
And he said, “And it’s still not over.”
No James. No, it’s not over.
Thanks be to God.
Image: Easter Morning, He Qi