A Religion of Unachievement


MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
March 25, 2012
Easter Sunday
Mark 16:1-8

“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 it.

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

A Prayer for Easter

Weeping comes for a night,
but joy comes in the morning, O God of power and might.

Death has been defeated
and we shout Alleluia!

Let all that we do today be a prayer of praise.

For many of us,
it is an Easter just like the others,
with Easter bonnets and Sunday best,
with the ringing of bells and hymns of joy,
with the preparing of meals and gathering around tables and hunting for eggs…

But let this be an Easter like no other.
Let us see and hear with resurrection eyes and ears.

Let us discern signs of new life in the usual places—a new baby, the beauty of nature;
and in unusual places… who knows where we might find you if we but look?

It is daunting to be resurrection people
even as we read and watch the news—
news of continued violence, poverty, suffering and despair.
We drink in these stories with our morning coffee, day after day,
and wonder where the Easter’s gone.

One year ago we celebrated your resurrection,
and it seems little has changed in our world since then—
Easter seems an idle tale in the wake of
lives destroyed by war, children abused, a creation spoiled,
and endless bickering among our leaders—
too much hand-wringing and too little willingness to do the difficult things.

Close to home, we know loved ones
who have felt the sting of death in their families;
people who struggle to survive the loss of a job,
people entombed by depression or a crippling illness.

Yes, resurrection eyes are not blind to pain.
Resurrection ears are not deaf to cries of suffering.

But resurrection people see your goodness
that outlasts and overpowers any darkness
we can experience or concoct.

Easter is the climax of the story, but not the end.
You alone can roll away the stone,
but we are called
to run, and tell:
“We have seen the Lord!
Come and follow! Believe, and live!”

If we don’t, who will?
Resurrect us, O God of new life—resurrect us from our complacency and fear.
You have the power to do it.

Let’s Get the Guy Out of the Tomb Already

Well Palm Sunday was a big success… clown noses and funny hats, shower heads and white carnations. I’m so thankful for folks ages 6 to 70 who were willing to dramatize some holy foolishness, and for a congregation that got it.

On to Holy Week.

If you’re not following Colossal, why on earth not? It’s an incredible collection of artistic goodness. Oh, if I had a projector and screen in the Tiny Church sanctuary… We are applying for a grant from the presbytery’s transformation project for exactly that, and boy, it cannot come fast enough.

Actually, that’s right. It can’t come fast enough because, if I had a projector this Sunday for Easter, I know what I would do.

Disclaimer: Even as I feel drawn to these images, I know they are not enough. The springing of spring is not deep enough. Easter is several orders of magnitude beyond that. But how does one preach resurrection? One leans heavily on the simile and prays it is enough, but we all know good and well that preaching resurrection is something like rendering the Sistine Chapel with stick figures. In crayon with stick figures.


Several years ago the Massachusetts Mental Health Center was slated for demolition. The MMHC had been in operation for something like 90 years and the building… well, it was old and rundown but also full of memory, sadness and hope. How to commemorate it? Artist Anna Schuleit decided to fill it with 28,000 potted plants. The photos are tender and touching. Here are just a few:

That is something like resurrection, no? Especially in Mark’s eerie, unsettling gospel account. Resurrection is incongruous in that landscape. It sprouts up out of our own dingy existence, making it new, but not unrecognizably new. We are still in this world, yes? Just transformed somehow. There’s a “blank, unholy surprise” to it, to quote Macaulay Connor.

I’m also loving the Wooly Bear Caterpillar, whose acquaintance I’ve made while watching Frozen Planet these last couple of weeks:

The wooly bear caterpillar lives in the arctic and when spring begins, it eats like crazy, trying to amass enough weight to be able to spin its cocoon and become a moth. It takes 14 years to complete that process. Each winter in the meantime it hibernates, sort of. Unlike some animals, whose metabolisms simply slow way down, the wooly bear caterpillar freezes solid. Its heart stops beating. Its gut freezes, then its blood. It is not, in fact, dead; but one couldn’t be blamed for writing it off as such: motionless, crusted over with ice.

But then in the spring, it wiggles into existence once more, and that relentless lurch toward change begins again. I love this. As someone who seems destined to learn the same lessons again and again, whose growth is slow, whose need for transformation doesn’t coincide with a nice, pat, yearly CLANG! of Easter, I am heartened that God’s new and renewing world has space for a caterpillar whose heart thuds to life again and again and again.

Two years ago on Easter I compared Jesus to a gopher. Maybe this year it’ll be the wooly bear.

Faith and Doubt—Where I Begin

A non-religious friend of mine read the sermon and said this, among other things:

Your approach made me feel it’s possible that religion can be open to the non-religious, which is a nice feeling—but it also leaves me wondering that if the central myth of Christianity being true or not is irrelevant to believers, what’s the difference between believers and nonbelievers?

Our conversation went all over the place from here, but this is what I said to him initially. I post it not because it’s all that polished or finished, but because it’s where I start with these kinds of conversations.


There’s a book out right now called something like, “What’s the least I can believe and still be a Christian.” It attempts to strip out the more literalist stuff that is not really the core of the gospel. Do I have to believe Genesis 1 is scientific? No. Do I need to believe that Jesus somehow has a claim on my life and that impacts how I live? Yes.

Your basic question is right on. Perhaps there isn’t much difference between believers and non-believers. If Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God/heaven is an enacted thing, you don’t need to profess Christ in order to be a part of it. And Jesus said as much (he who is not against us is for us—though he also said the opposite somewhere else, so whaddyagonnado).

What I hope to do in my preaching is to speak a word to people who are what Flannery O’Connor called  “Christ-haunted”–who struggle with profound doubt (and really, what person with a brain doesn’t doubt?), but who just cannot quit Jesus. And the best I can come up with for those folks is this idea of master stories (not my own invention). What story are we living in? Might makes right, look out for #1, only the good die young? Or life out of death? So last Easter was the anniversary of King’s assassination. And I said [paraphrased] “it is crazy to think that a bullet could put an end to Dr. King’s dream.” That’s where I see resurrection.

And for people who aren’t inclined toward faith that’s ridiculous. The man died and his children were left without a father and there were riots in the streets. I can’t argue with that. But there were also redemptive elements in the aftermath too.

Roger Ebert’s review of Of Gods and Men (the movie I mentioned in the sermon) was interesting. He just could not get his head around the monks’ decision to stay and be killed. If they had left, he said, the group of them would have had a hundred years or so of service to give to the poor in some other community. I respect that view and also recognize it as the product of an atheist mind. I’m pretty utilitarian myself, but that calculated way of looking at their lives demonstrates a lack of understanding of what motivates them. Those monks are not primarily social service providers, they are participating in a story of Christ’s emptying himself for humanity, even unto death.

I don’t know if the faith thing is genetic or what, but it’s clear there are people who just aren’t oriented that way. I’m not sure there’s anything I could say to them and it’s probably insulting to try, so peace be upon them. But for people who perceive the world in a more intuitively faith-based way, I hope I give them a place to stand, or pace around scratching their heads, or whatever they need to do.

It’s not so much that the truth of the Christ myth is unimportant, but that the facticity of the physical resurrection is a red herring in that pursuit of truth. By living in the way of Jesus, we participate in the resurrection story, and that brings its own insight, even if that insight results in a further lack of clarity.

Like Augustine said, “It is solved by walking.”


What do you say?

Easter Opening

I wanted to share with my clergypals something we did yesterday in worship that I felt was simple but effective.

One of the tensions in the church is how much to emphasize the passion of Christ on Palm Sunday. It seems unfair to “cheat” Palm Sunday and insert too much Maundy Thursday/Good Friday into it, but attendance at those midweek services is usually a fraction of what it is on Sunday. So, many pastors reason, it makes sense to at least acknowledge the themes of MT/GF, otherwise most people don’t get them at all. And resurrection without a death is cheap grace. But what about starting Easter with Good Friday, and giving the Easter crowds a little taste of that theme? I’d personally never seen that done, but it makes sense.

At Tiny Church, we hit the Palm Sunday themes pretty hard two weekends ago—even sang “Joy to the World” after the sermon. We shifted to passion late in the service—really, just the last hymn. During “Go to Dark Gethsemane” we extinguished the candles, recessed out with the Bible, and draped a heavy black cloth on the communion table.

On Good Friday we did a Tenebrae service with seven candles on the communion table. These were all extinguished except for the one on the far right. It seemed right to have one remaining candle as the other lights dimmed or went out, and to have it off-center, since there is something off-kilter and out of balance about the death of Christ.

Sunday morning the black cloth was still there, and the off-center candle was lit again. The pulpit and chancel was mostly bare (although the lilies were there on the front wall because they have to be arranged ahead of time… what’re you gonna do?)

We adapted this call to worship from the book Before the Amen, which was perfect for our purposes:

Leader:            Look! The dawn is breaking. Morning is on its way.
See, on the hillside the sun is beginning to rise!
People:            Leave us alone and let us sleep. We doubt the good news; We see nothing but darkness.
Leader:            Look! The tomb is open. A new day has begun.
People:            Leave us alone and let us grieve. We have lost hope,
and all our dreams are dead.

Then we played the song “He Lives in You” from The Lion King musical. If you know the song, it starts low, with the word “Night,” but builds and builds until it ends in joyful adulation, with the words “He lives in you, he lives in me; he watches over everything we see” repeated throughout. From the moment I saw that show in Atlanta I thought “I will use that on Easter some day.” Only took 8 years…

So during the song I had people come forward and “bring Easter” into the sanctuary. First someone came up and took the candle off the table and used it to light the other candles in the chancel. Then I removed the black cloth with a nice swish at the first mention of “He lives in you.” The next section was a flurry of activity: white tablecloth on table, communion elements brought down the aisle, large bowl placed on the baptismal font, pouring of water with a big flourish, pulpit adorned with Easter parament, procession of Bible and placement in pulpit.

Then we picked up with the rest of the call to worship:

Leader:            But look! The grave is empty. The stone is rolled away. The Lord is risen!
People:            He is risen indeed!

The folks who participated are not dancers, including me. I’d always imagined some kind of liturgical dance to this song, but this was authentic for Tiny Church, and I think it worked well.

Sometimes, while I’m leading worship, Margaret likes to come up and stand quietly next to me. She doesn’t need acknowledgement, she just wants to be close. Yesterday she saw me coming down the aisle and came up beside me and took my hand. So she and I swished off the black cloth together. Then I had her bring in one of the loaves of bread. Very lovely… especially since Margaret likes to skip in the aisle. Yes, Easter is definitely a day for skipping.

BTW, if anyone ever does this, make sure you use the reprise, the one Rafiki sings, not the one Mustafa sings. He sings “They live in you.” Not as good for Easter… though maybe on Trinity Sunday.

I kid…

BTW, a friend of mine who heard I was going to do this decided to wake her teenage kids on Easter morning by playing this song. That makes me so happy to picture it.

He is risen indeed.

They Did Not Understand—A Sermon for Easter

MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
April 17, 2011
John 20:1-18


They Did Not Understand

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look* into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ 14When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ 16Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew,* ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

It’s happened again, like clockwork. Every year around this time there’s an article in which someone breathlessly announces some piece of Jesus-related archaeology. This year? Someone has found a pair of nails that could have been those used to nail Jesus to the cross. (It’s always amazing to me how these discoveries coincide with Easter.)

These artifacts always get used as evidence by all sorts of people to lend credence to their own points of view. “You see, this all really happened and we’ve got doodads to prove it!” some people crow triumphantly. Others sneer, “You faith people really grasp at straws. Even if the nails were used to nail Jesus to the cross, that doesn’t make him the Son of God and it certainly doesn’t mean he rose from the dead.”

At the heart of all of those statements and arguments and what’s at the heart of our even being here today is one simple question… one profound question:

Is it true?

Is it true that the body was not just stolen by grave robbers, but risen from the dead?

Is it true that the pile of linen wrappings and the cloth rolled up like a beach towel were signs that Jesus was alive?

Is it true that the man whom Mary saw in the garden with dirt under his fingernails and a smudge on his face was not the gardener, but the resurrected Christ?

Is it true? they asked on that first Easter. Is it true? we ask, 2000 years later.

We ask with the skepticism of our age: Is it true? Do people really still believe this? Can’t this holiday just be a nice cultural festival to celebrate spring? Nobody takes resurrection seriously anymore.

Or we ask with our radar attuned to the hypocrisy we see on the part of seemingly pious people: Is it true? Because the people who call themselves Christians sure don’t act like it’s true… what with their judging and hating gays and scapegoating immigrants and committing the very same sins they condemn in others.

Or we ask with all the desperation and hope we can muster, because we have loved ones struggling for life, we have despair over the state of our planet, we feel beaten down by the suffering that seems to flow to the ends of the earth: Is it true? Is death really not the end? Does the fate of this tiny planet in a remote corner of the Milky Way really matter? Is our history and our civilization heading somewhere?

…Today may be Easter but it sure looks a lot like Good Friday out there.

* * *

Mary arrives at the tomb, spices in hand, ready to anoint a dead body. She’d waited, you see, during the Jewish Sabbath (and the Passover, no less) until she could prepare the body. She went with haste, while it was still early morning, not because she expected “it” to be true, not because she knew this was the first day of a new creation, but because she had a job to do. For all she knows, it’s still Good Friday.

Mary is the first one there, and she’s the first one to see the resurrected Christ and to touch him, and to be spoken to by him. But she’s not the first person to believe the resurrection; she’s not the first to realize what has happened. That happens earlier in the story, and someone else gets that honor. Someone else “believes” the resurrection, there in verse 8, before Jesus even shows up to Mary in the garden… but we don’t know his name.

Peter runs to the tomb with a person John calls “the other disciple,” who gets there first. And this disciple does not stand at the tomb’s entrance and peer in. He does not squint into the gloom, refusing to cross that threshold. No, he goes into the tomb. And then, and only then, does he see and believe. He goes into a place of death and finds life instead.

And here’s the comforting thing, for me anyway: (verse 9) This other disciple believes, even though he has not understood the scripture up to now. Think of it. The very first person to believe in the risen Christ didn’t see the signs at all. The first believer was confused about who Jesus was and what he was all about. He didn’t get it.

When he saw Jesus turn water into wine, he didn’t get it.

When he heard Jesus proclaim a message of love and forgiveness, he didn’t get it.

When he saw Jesus break a couple loaves of bread and bless a basket of fish and feed 5,000 people, he didn’t get it.

When he heard Jesus thunder “Lazarus, come out of that tomb!” he didn’t get it.

I’m thinking that if Jesus’ disciple and constant companion believed in the resurrection without understanding the whole thing, maybe it’s OK for us not to understand it.

So let me say to you today: I don’t get it.

But if the resurrection is something we crave, if new life is something that we want to stake our life on, if a reborn creation is the master story in which we dare to live and move and have our being… we can’t just stand at the door of the tomb and analyze things. We can’t perch our glasses on our nose and survey the scene. We’ve gotta enter in. We’ve gotta bend down, get close to it, we’ve gotta see it first hand. We’ve got to enter the tomb in order to see and believe. We’ve got to be that unnamed disciple. Someone asked me this week, “Do we not know who that guy was?” Do we not know who the unnamed disciple was who believed but did not understand?

I say, we know that disciple’s name.

The disciple’s name is MaryAnn.

The disciple’s name is David.

The disciple’s name is Emily… Myrtle… Steve… Bruce.

The disciple saw and believed, but did not understand.

* * *

The disciples’ names are Luc, Christophe, Christian, Jean-Pierre, Paul. They were Trappist monks, originally from France, living in Algeria during the 1990s. Their story is the subject of a new movie called Of Gods and Men.

These monks live peacefully among the Muslim villagers, they run a clinic, they attend coming of age festivals for the children, they study the Koran as well as the Bible, they worship Christ and love one another as family. A group of Islamists, extremists, begin to terrorize the village. They systematically and brutally begin to murder all foreigners. The Muslims in the village recognize this as an utter corruption of Islam, and they are frightened. And so are the monks.

They have a choice to make: do they leave the village and return to France? Or do they stay with the people of the village, whom they love? Do they leave and go to a safer place to serve another community for the remaining years of their lives? Or do they remain committed to be the body of Christ among and with their Muslim neighbors, knowing that that commitment could lead to their deaths?

Most of the movie centers around the process of making that decision. At one point Christian tries to explain what their Trappist community is all about and he says [paraphrased], We are called to love our neighbors. We can’t do that from a distance. We are called to be intimately involved with their lives. Close to them, their joy and their pain.

We are called to be close to them.

We are called to enter into the tomb, not stand at arms’ length. We are called to enter into places of suffering, places of pain, places of mystery and darkness and perplexity. Because that’s what Jesus did. In his death he crawled inside every agony we can imagine and proclaimed that those agonies are not the end. He emerged on the other side, looking something like the gardener, disheveled, but ready to plant and cultivate a new heaven and a new earth with those willing to pick up the shovel and the plow alongside him.

As I watched the film I was stunned at the monks’ commitment to the way of Christ, especially since I knew how their story ended. I felt convicted by their faith, even as I felt grateful that I will probably never have to make such a stark choice.

But maybe the lessons of the film are not so divorced from our own experience. Because while they are wrestling with this decision, they are chopping firewood. They are putting honey into jars and selling it in the marketplace. They are digging through a box of donated shoes to find just the right size for a little girl and her mother. They are rejoicing at another shipment of medicine that comes in. They are celebrating with friends. They are washing dishes. They are singing and they are keeping silent. They are drinking wine and eating. They are doing ordinary things… ordinary things with great love. They are in the tomb, completely immersed in human experience and human suffering and human mystery and joy… not peering in from a safe distance.

So maybe while we are asking, Is it true? we might try some things.

We might try looking the person in the eye who’s holding the cardboard sign or the battered paper cup half-full of loose change.

We might put away the smartphone when our loved one is talking to us and hear what they’re saying and maybe even the message behind the words.

We might write a letter or make a phone call; we might make our voice heard in the halls of power to speak up for justice and peace for all people.

We might plant a tree that we will never see fully mature.

And we might tend to this moment as if it is the most precious thing in God’s kingdom.

We might go about our work, or our relationships, with the same great love as those monks, working to partner with God in this reborn earth that we seek to believe in even as we fail to fully understand it.

Is it true?

How does the life we live answer that question?

What do you, the unnamed disciple, say?