Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Keep it Quiet

Easter/Mark 16:1-8

by Daniel Harrell

Easter comes at a scary time this year. People are getting laid off and losing their homes. Jobs are scarce. Credit has loosened up a bit and the markets are up some, but there’s a long way to go out of the hole. Senseless gun violence of late has taken so many innocent lives. Earthquakes. War. Global warming has melted an ancient ice bridge in Antarctica, and yet cold weather here seems like it will never end. To top it off, taxes are due on Wednesday. Perhaps you’ve come to church this Easter seeking hope for your fear. You need to be reassured with some good news. You want some comfort to soothe your anxiety and worry. Unfortunately, this year’s Easter story comes from Mark’s gospel. Yes, Jesus still rises from the dead to be sure, but the outcomes dramatically differ from Matthew, Luke and John. Whereas the other gospels have the risen Jesus appearing to the women to cheer them up, in Mark, the women run away. The good news is bad news. Mark’s moral of the resurrection is this: Be afraid, be very afraid.

So much for easing your anxiety. You’re thinking, “I knew I should have come to church this morning!” True, the brightly dressed young man sitting by the empty tomb (most likely an angel) told the women “don’t be alarmed,” but angels are always saying that. The women tremulously back away from the empty tomb, their eyes and mouths wide with panic. Clearly this was not what they were expecting. Although Jesus had told them on several occasions how he would be killed and rise from the dead, nobody really believed it. The women came to the graveyard with burial spices with which to lessen the stink of Jesus’ decomposing body.

The angel said, “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He is not here. You just missed him. He has risen! See the place where they laid him. Go, tell his disciples and Peter.” But too bewildered to talk, the women fled and said nothing to anyone. That’s it. End of gospel. No after-resurrection appearances. No reconciliation with Peter who denied Jesus three times. No go into the world and make more disciples. No breathing out the Holy Spirit. No conversations along the road to Emmaus. No breakfasts on the beach. None of the stuff that you get from the other Gospels. Just fear. The end.

Last summer while on vacation with my family, we decided to take advantage of a beautiful evening and grill outside. The house where we stayed has this huge gas grill, but I forgot to check propane tank before cooking. Turns out that the tank was low. There was enough to get the grill lit, just not enough to keep it lit. Anyway, thinking that the grill was heating up, I got the burgers prepped, popped a cold one, set the table outside. My mom and sister joined me on the patio to watch the sun set. Meanwhile, the flame had gone out on the grill, but fumes from the tank still gathered inside. I looked at the cold thermostat and concluded that nothing was happening. Not thinking, I pushed the automatic igniter a few more times to see if I could get it going and again and… BOOM!! The cover blew off, followed by flying iron grates that whizzed past my sister’s head. My mom sat in shock. The rest of the family came running from the house, including a neighbor from down the street who had heard the explosion. Dawn stayed inside, bracing herself for the inevitable news of my demise. I was not dead, but my eyebrows were singed, my hair on end and black soot and grease splattered on my face. We were all pretty scared. But we were still pretty hungry too. So we ordered pizza. That’s it. Just fear, then dinner. The end.

Naturally the early church couldn’t tolerate such an non-ending, so somebody decided to cobble together from the other Gospels and elsewhere a more fitting conclusion. That’s why most of your Bibles have a line drawn after verse 8 noting something like, “The most reliable early manuscripts and ancient witnesses do not have verses 9-20.” These tacked-on verses describe Mary Magdalene as has having been possessed by seven demons. They have nobody believing the women’s testimony. The resurrected Jesus eventually shows up and scolds the disciples for their lack of faith, but then tells them how if they will believe, they’ll be able to “Pick up snakes with their hands and drink deadly poison and not be hurt,” which to me only enhances the fear factor. But Mark didn’t write these verses. His part ends without snakes. Some modern scholars assert that verse 8 is the introduction to an authentic conclusion of Mark that has simply disappeared, and they may be right. But if they are right I Though I have to wonder, if the concluding climax is missing, are there other important parts left out too? Maybe a piece where Jesus says he was only kidding, you can worship both God and money? Or at least something about Jesus teaching his disciples proper propane technique.

It is possible that there’s more to Mark than what we have; but since what we have is all we do have, we must make do. Maybe Mark did mean to stop here. After all, people in Mark are constantly being told by Jesus to keep quiet. Here the women do just that. Instead of some cheap, feel good ending, Mark leaves us with something better and darker. A strange, frightening puzzle which leaves every reader to figure out for him or herself what it all means. Still, panic and bewilderment are odd emotions to attach to Easter. Christ’s resurrection is cause for celebration not trepidation. This explains why few churches ever choose Mark as their Easter scripture. When it comes to the risen Jesus, what’s to fear? Where’s the danger?

The answer depends on how you look at it, I guess. Had Jesus stayed buried in that cemetery, people could have come by, brought their spices and paid their respects. Jesus would have been memorialized as a wise sage by some, an admirable albeit failed revolutionary by others. His words would have been studied and pondered, published and programmed as screensavers and iPhone apps. The amenable lines would have been printed onto T-shirts and embossed on greeting cards; leaving the radical and dangerous lines to be tossed aside as anomalies, eccentric utterances of a man out of touch with the times. Seriously, who loves their enemies or prays for their persecutors? Who forgives without limit? Selling your possessions and giving all the proceeds to the poor is hardly practical. And why can’t you serve God and money both? We do it all the time. Becoming least in order to be great doesn’t make any sense either. And who’s ever heard of losing your life to find it or plucking out your eye if it causes you to sin? Had Jesus stayed buried in the ground, we could have left these words buried with him.

But Jesus did not stay buried. The angel says to the women, “He’s not here. He has risen!” You’d think this to be unbelievably great news, yet when the angel tells the women to go and take the good news to the disciples, and particularly to Peter who had to be feeling horrible for being such a weenie, they don’t. They keep quiet. Mark says it was because the women were afraid. I get that. I’m afraid sometimes to tell people about Jesus. I’m afraid that people will think I’m a freak, or demented, or right winged and judgmental, or intolerant. Especially once they hear that I follow Jesus for a living. As I’ve mentioned before, coming out of the ministerial closet can be a real conversation-stopper. Tell most people you’re a minister and the first thing you get is silence. Then comes the smirk (“No, seriously, what do you do?”); followed by the shock, (“Man, you seem so normal”); then the pity (“Job market’s pretty tight, huh?”) and finally the condescension (“Well, I’m sure it’s very rewarding.”).

For my birthday, Dawn treated me to a haircut and shave at this old-timey barber shop in the South End. I got into classic shaving a few years ago after one too many Cary Grant movies. I loved the idea of spending an hour or so under scented hot towels, followed by hot lather and the clean swipe of a straight edge across my cheek. The barber shop was just as I expected it to be: lots of wood and leather, the smell of witch hazel and lime, a barber pole whirring outside. The place reeked of testosterone. There were Sports Illustrated and Maxim magazines on the table and complimentary beer. This was place for real men, and as any real man knows, the only that matters to real men after who won the NCAA basketball championship is what you do for a living. I got scared. What if my barber was one those men who thought faith was for wussies? Or worse, what if he packed a truckload of religious resentment due to some horrible experience he’d had with church in the past? He was going to have a straight razor at my neck. Maybe like the women in Mark, I should keep my mouth shut too.

The only problem is that while Jesus did tell folks to keep quiet, that was only while he walked on earth. The reason was that Jesus didn’t want his fans to get in the way of his life-saving mission. Unlike comic book Messiahs, Jesus didn’t swoop down to destroy evil and sin by brute force. He did it by getting nailed to a cross. He won by losing. He took onto himself the best that evil could dish out and killed it in himself so that it wouldn’t be able to kill us. Sure, we all still die; but the difference is that people who believe Jesus don’t stay dead. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he said, “whoever believes in me will live, even if they die.” And then he proved it by getting up from the grave. Back in chapter 9, where Jesus briefly flashed a preview of his resurrection power for three of his disciples to see. He told them to keep it quiet, but only until he had risen from the dead. In other words, they weren’t supposed to keep it quiet forever. In fact, in chapter 8 he told them, “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” Dang. I took this to mean I couldn’t keep quiet in a barber shop even if I was afraid.

Had Jesus stayed buried in that cemetery, people could have come by, brought their spices and paid their respects. He would have been memorialized as a wise sage by some, an admirable albeit failed revolutionary by others. His words would have been studied and pondered, published and programmed as screensavers and iPhone apps. But nobody would have had to do what they say. However, Jesus did not stay buried. The angel said to the women, “He has risen!” Jesus resurrection was his validation, proof that all his talk was true. Throughout Mark’s gospel, Jesus got hammered by the religious establishment for talking blasphemy. He got hammered by the crowds for talking austerity. He got hammered by his family for talking crazy. He got hammered by his own disciples for talking about becoming a casualty. And he got literally hammered by the Romans onto a criminal’s cross. What kind of Messiah does that? What kind of Messiah just up and dies? The kind of Messiah who knows he’s going to get up after he dies. Jesus’ resurrection was his validation, proof that he was talking truth. And if you believe Jesus’ talk is true, then you have to do something about it. Dang.

The barber honed his razor’s edge sharp on his strop. The whetted blade glistened. Dabbing the hot lather across my now exposed and defenseless neck, he predictably asked, “so what do you do?” A bead of perspiration sprouted out on my forehead. My mouth went dry. My heart picked up its beat. (I could say that I “work downtown,” that’s not a total lie. I could say that I’m an author, but then he’d want to know what I’ve written. A psychologist? I do have a degree in that. No, that could be bad too.) The bead of sweat trickled downward as the words of Jesus rang in my ears, “If anyone is ashamed of me in this adulterous and sinful barber shop…” “OK, OK, I’m a minister!” I said, “I preach in a church! I talk about Jesus! I believe he rose from the dead! I pray and read the Bible! Please don’t cut me!” The barber stopped sharpening his razor. He said, “Really? Me too. I pray and read the Bible. I go to this little church up in Revere. We have an awesome sunrise service on the beach Easter morning. You should come. Our pastor plays the accordion. You might even know him.” (I do.)

I was all afraid… for nothing. Which is the good news of Easter, isn’t it? The angel was right, “don’t be alarmed.” Jesus rose from the dead, you have nothing to fear. Jesus rose from the dead; death has no sting. You don’t have to be afraid of dying anymore. Take the fear of death off the table, every other fear comes off the table with it—layoffs, foreclosures, violence, global warming and war, even taxes. Because Jesus rose from the dead, this life is not all there is. As the apostle Paul put it, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pathetic of all people.” But Christ has been raised; so you have nothing to fear even if other people think you’re pathetic anyway. Resurrection changes everything. Because Jesus rose from the dead, you don’t have to be afraid of your enemies. What are they going to do, kill you? You might as well love them and forgive them and pray for them too, just like Jesus said. And why not sell some of your possessions and give the money to the poor? Jesus says you’re getting up from the dead. What more do you need? Becoming least in order to be great? No problem. The same with losing your life to find it. OK, so plucking out your eye remains a dicey proposition, but with the resurrection, sin loses a lot of its allure. And ashamed of Jesus? Not me. Not even in barber shops. At least not anymore.

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