Mark 16: 1-8
There are some of us here, I am sure, whose English teachers were real sticklers about how we began and ended our essays. Well, some might think that Mark could have used such a teacher, because his beginning and ending are---quite frankly--- a bit disappointing. There’s no birth narrative in Mark, no dramatic scene of an angel making a scandalous announcement to a virgin, no angels filling the skies with glorious words of peace and good will, no wise men making a long journey to Jerusalem to worship the new born baby. Mark has none of this; he just begins at the beginning with “the good news of Jesus Christ.” And then there is the ending, which is our concern for this Easter Sunday. All Mark tells us is that after the two Marys had been told by a young man dressed in a white robe that Jesus has been raised and has gone ahead to Galilee, the women fled, ”because terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” And this (verse 8) is where the original gospel ended.
Unlike the other gospels, Mark never shows us the resurrected Christ. After his resurrection we never hear him utter one word or see him do one deed, and so in comparison with the other three gospels, Mark’s ending does seem disappointing, which is probably why someone later tacked on verses 9 to 19. New Testament scholars believe that this additional ending is a much later addition, perhaps centuries later, because the older versions of Mark simply do not have it. Someone thought the original ending needed work.
And we can understand why. Not only is the risen Christ absent, but also the two women at the tomb completely fail in their understanding. Though they were given some pretty clear instructions about what they were to tell the disciples, they said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. Afraid, because when the world does not work as expected, when the usual rules and procedures are overturned, we human beings often do respond in fear, which is why Jesus spent so much of his ministry telling people, “Do not be afraid; do not be anxious.” And, of course, when it comes to death and dying fear is rampant.
Now the people of Jesus’ day knew death far more intimately than we do, because while we are successful at pushing it away—into hospitals, nursing homes, hospices, or even in execution chambers, closed to the public, the people of Jesus’ day were intimate witnesses. They had seen Jesus suffer and die. They knew he was dead, and the women, who were the caretakers of the dead, knew the sight and smell of death. But they did not know what to make of the news that he was resurrected. They did not understand; they were clueless, and when we feel completely clueless, fear is neither uncommon nor inappropriate.
Don’t most of us feel pretty clueless when it comes to the resurrection? We are people, after all, who believe in and respect science. When someone dies, and we ready ourselves to attend a memorial service, we don’t expect to arrive and be told, “He or she is alive, risen from the dead.” Since the resurrection is so outside the realm of normal human experience, none of the four gospels attempt to describe it, so we do not know what or how it happened. What we do know is that after the initial shock and fear of Jesus’ arrest and execution, the same disciples, who had abandoned Jesus, came together and proclaimed that God had done something new in Jesus Christ. “He is risen,” they said, and from that proclamation, the church grew.
Though none of us can explain or describe the resurrection, we still struggle to interpret it, that is, say something about how it impacts human life in the here and the now as well as in the future. And to me the resurrection is all about the persistence of God. God persists, no matter what we human beings do or say. No matter how many times we reject God and the new creation, God does not reject or give up on us. In the crucifixion, we human beings said and say NO to God, but in the resurrection God says NO to our NO. God persists in love, and that is what the resurrection is all about.
About five years ago, my husband and I went to Poland for two weeks. Kaz, who is Polish, had been a student intern at my church in New Haven for three years, and we became very close. After graduation, he was called to a church in Massachusetts, and every summer he would return to Poland, where his parents and brother still lived. One summer he invited my husband and me to come, so we spent a week with Kaz and his parents, and then went on a guided hiking tour in southern Poland with an English hiking company. In mid week we had a day off, and since we had rented a car, we decided we would visit Auschwitz and Bikenau, notorious concentration camps. It felt to us like a kind of pilgrimage, something we owed to the victims of history. The night before our pilgrimage, we mentioned to our hiking group that we planned to go, and this one man, a retired teacher from England, asked us if we would take something he had written, and place it in one of the women’s bunkers. I have been to Auschwitz once, he said, and once is enough. I was hoping someone from our hiking group would be going. And then he told us the story.
“My 35 year old daughter had recently died of breast cancer,” he said, “and I was in the depths of despair. I simply could not get out of my depression, and one afternoon I was outside in my garden, looking at the blooming flowers, trying to embrace new life, when my neighbor, an elderly gentleman, came out of his home and joined me in the garden. We spoke for a while about the lovely weather, and because it was such a warm day, he had no jacket on, and for the first time, though I had lived next door to him for over 40 years, I noticed his arm with a number on it. I knew he was Jewish, and so I blurted out, “You were in a concentration camp? I asked in astonishment. You never told me; you never talk about it.
Why would I want to remember such pain and sorrow, he said. I lost my wife and my eight year old daughter at Auschwitz, and after they died, I had no will, no reason to live. One morning I refused to rise for my work detail. The guard was screaming at me, telling me to get up or I would be shot. But I didn’t care; death would have been a welcome release, but suddenly I felt this heavy push against my shoulder and then against my back and a voice in my brain, saying, “Get up and live. I will be with you.” And I did get up and live, and whenever I was tempted to give up, I felt this push and pull. I had no doubt it was God. God just doesn’t give up, my neighbor said to me, even when so many people around us, do, even in the midst of great evil or great pain. And so I survived; I have lived all these many decades; I married again and have three children, 7 grandchildren and 4 great grandchildren. That is my revenge against all that evil.
That man helped me as no one else could, the teacher said to me, and then he handed me the words he had written, a free verse poem, dedicated to the 8 year old daughter of his neighbor. And the name of the poem: “God Persists.”
God persists in love, even when we are tempted to hate.
God persists in mercy, even when we might rightly choose vengeance.
God persists to call us to new life, even when,
especially when our lives have been pulverized by an evil and sorrow so bitterly deep we cannot begin to understand or name it.
Yes, God persists in love, a deep heart wrenching love for the victim
And most appallingly of all, a deep heart wrenching love for the victimizer.
We cannot understand this.
We do not want to understand this: why God persists in this kind of tormented love.
And yet it is this love and mercy of God that move the universe and make all life new.
And so I placed the poem on one of the wooden bunkers in the women’s barracks and walked away, thinking, God persists. Indeed, this is what the resurrection of Christ is: the persistence of God’s love and mercy, even when, especially when we reject what God so graciously gives. God will not take our No for an answer.
About Our Pastor:
I am very happy to be here at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Unionville, CT. I arrived here in July, 2017, and have been warmly received. This is a wonderful church community. I have been an ordained minister for over three decades now, and I consider it a great privilege and challenge to be called to serve. Before coming to Unionville I served churches on Long Island, Middletown, CT and then ten years in New Haven, Center Church on the Green. My home is in Middletown, where I live with my husband, Donald Oliver, who is a professor of molecular biology at Wesleyan University. We have four grown children, two boys and two girls and three granddaughters, the youngest born on October 3, 2017!