“Finish It” by Rev. Michael Livingston
Easter Sunday, April 4, 2021
No one looks good in Mark’s gospel. Only Jesus. And in the end, the men are dumb and the women are afraid. And an angel points us back to the beginning, toward Galilee, where Jesus began his ministry, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The good news today is “Christ is Risen. Christ is Risen, indeed.” The Good news is the Resurrection. Though it seems it ought to, that simply doesn’t end it.
You know how we think about it over the ages: Jesus died for our sins. We are saved by the resurrection. It is a victory over death. Death has been defeated. Siblings, we’ve got two centuries of so much evil, so much tragedy, so many crusades, wars, disasters, threats, pandemics—what victory? Saved from what? It’s just so hard to know what it means, what it gives to us, what it demands of us. It’s just so hard, sometimes, to see it in our world. To see it in our lives. To see it now, in this moment in time. Easter points back in time to events that we know have been transformative. Events that reordered time. Events beyond imagination. A horrific death—we’ve seen plenty of that.
There’s a trial going on right now in Minneapolis about just such a death. It wasn’t on a hill, the trial follows the killing and is of the perpetrator, rather than the victim. There weren’t a few scattered witnesses to the death, afraid, most of them, to get to close. It was filmed and most of the world saw it. George Floyd spoke seven last words: 1. “Mama, mama, mama!” 2. “Please, man.” 3. “You’re going to kill me, man.” 4. “I can’t believe this.” 5. “Tell my kids I love them.” 6. “I’m dead.” 7. “I can’t breathe.” These were identified by John Thomas, III, the Editor of The Christian Recorder, a publication of the AME Church.
Remember our Seven Last Words service here, in February of 2015 the day before the birth date of Malcom X? There were seven sermons right in this pulpit: 1. “Scream.” Trayvon Martin. 2. “I love you (too).” Sean Bell. 3. “Mom, I want to go to college.” Amadou Diallo. 4. I don’t want to die.” Shantel Davis. 5. “Don’t Shoot.” Michael Brown. 6. “I can’t breathe.” Eric Garner. 7. “I want to go home.” Renisha McBride. Victory? Saved…from what?
In our modern world, post-reformation Christianity, 21st century, the age of AI, the pre-dawn of life on Mars, we worship the victory. We’ve turned Easter into a celebration with brass ensembles, Calla Lilies, new clothes, pageants, colored egg hunts (how’d that get in there?), especially rousing sermons—for those gifted with rhetorical fervor—culminating in the annual singing of Handel’s Messiah. We have Easter brunches, and Easter parades, the Easter Egg Roll at the White House, chocolate bunnies, easter cards, hot cross buns, easter ham for those who’ve moved on from lamb. And everybody goes to church, signifying something I’m no longer sure we can name with any precision. Attendance at Easter is the first time since Christmas for many. All that has changed. Nobody is going anywhere, certainly not to a church with a geographical address. We’re going to the couch, or the kitchen table, or the part of the bedroom or living room that is an office.
This is our second pandemic Easter. And this one has a black eye. Last Easter we didn’t really know what we were in for. I cancelled my March trip home to see my parents and siblings and made a new reservation for…wait for it…two months later, May. You know that didn’t work out. 550,000 deaths later, nearly 3 million worldwide, more to come, we think we are near the end, but can’t know for sure. I am here this morning live in the chancel with five other liturgists, and 20-something musicians. It’s glorious and haunting. It’s so good to see so many…and so chilling, still, to see so many empty pews. Is this any way to run Easter? Last week, a member asked me if there would be any palms at the church, could she come and pick one up? Sadly no. I wish I’d thought of that, but why? Really? How many would we order? Do we really want to encourage people to travel to the church any more than is absolutely necessary? And on and on and on.
Can you feel the world turning? Can you feel the earth saying, “I can’t breathe?” God’s not coming to save us. Jesus isn’t coming back riding in the air on a majestic stallion. 144,000 thousand of us aren’t going to win a lottery and ascend to heaven in chariots of gold. A friend said the other day, “These feel like the end times.” In my head I dismissed it. Out loud I may have said something I thought witty, like, “Don’t bet too much on any particular day.” But doesn’t it make sense to think about it? Isn’t that the meaning of climate change? The threat we can no longer ignore. May I quote myself from Maundy Thursday? Climate change is “…the destruction bearing down upon on us as the planet warms and the ice melts, and the seas rise, and the storms rage, and the oil spills, and the fish die, and birds and bees disappear, and the future for the children of our children and their children grows more uncertain on an unstable earth.”
Fosdick labored against a world overrun by fundamentalists. When Coffin was in the world at Riverside, the threat was MAD: Mutual Assured Destruction. That’s still a possibility. Today, an invisible microscopic virus is a global killer. It’s happened before. It’s happening now. It’ll happen again. Spanning every Senior Minister that has served Riverside from Fosdick to Butler there has been one constant; since the founding of the nation the altogether too visible sin of racism has been an extraordinary killer of dreams and bodies: red bodies, black bodies, brown bodies, yellow bodies. It is indiscriminate, no need for competition here, no one has a corner on this diseased man-made-MAD-ness. Women’s lives and bodies are commodities and expendable. The thirst for unlimited unregulated profit, the global capitalist insatiable quest for wealth and profit is a threat to all of us. It is irrational in the extreme. People suffer and die and the wealthiest corporations operating pay no taxes to “…form a more perfect Union…promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty…”
None of this makes Easter irrelevant. Don’t misunderstand me. It makes Easter urgent. It makes resurrection essential—that’s the word for this year, isn’t it? Essential. But Mark, the first gospel doesn’t help us much. We can live with the discomfort, we can ignore Mark really, because we think we know the story of the resurrection and all that follows. More complete and familiar versions exist in Matthew and Luke, John. There’s Thomas sticking his hands in Jesus’ side, touching to douse his doubts. There are the two disciples on the Emmaus Road. There’s Jesus standing among the twelve and talking about the future—giving instructions about where he’s going and alerting them to the coming of the Spirit, the Counselor. There he is surprising Peter and Nathaniel, the sons of Zebedee fishing and catching nothing the morning after and helping them bring in a big haul—153 species of fish. This is when Peter gets asked three times, Do you love me? Then, “Feed my Sheep.” And there he is ascending into heaven, his work on earth done. Such exacting detail, the resurrection rescued by narrative riches.
Except there is none of that in the first gospel. None of it. But what there is, is magnificent, is mysterious, is full of Mary’s. Before the text for this morning all the way to the last of what we know Mark wrote—through the 8th verse—the Mary’s and Salome see where Jesus is buried, from a distance, they don’t want to get close to Joseph of Arimathea. Not the father of Jesus, this Joseph was “…a respected member of the council, the one that condemned him to die. This Joseph went to Pilate to and arranged for a quick burial, no preparation of the body, no unused tomb—that would have been an honor. That’s how the women knew where to go early the next morning. That’s why they brought spices. It doesn’t explain why they didn’t bring someone to help roll the stone away—they knew it was larger than even the three of them could handle.
This gospel wasn’t written to tie up loose ends, it was written to loosen up what is too tight: our grip on the way we see things, our fear of trusting God and our toxic mistrust of others, our narrow concerns for self, our hoarding of grace—as if we could—the very effort is crippling, our guarding against vulnerability as if a false security could save us, our silence when only testimony/witness will set truth loose to bring the freedom that follows in its light. “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.”
Yes, they did. Luke says that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them…” told the apostles that Jesus was not in the tomb. A whole posse of women announced the resurrection “…but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and [the men] did not believe them.” See what a long history this is? Men not listening to women, not trusting their truth? In John, after Mary tells Peter and John (in his modesty? he calls himself “the other disciple”) there is the famous footrace to the tomb to see for themselves. Women are first to the tomb in every gospel; women are first to tell of the resurrection in Matthew, Luke, and John. So, what is Mark up to?
The last ten words of the first gospel are “…and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Well, that’s the translation in English. A literal translation of the Greek is: “To no one anything they said; afraid they were for . . .” And that’s it. That’s how the first gospel ends. Forget what’s called “the shorter ending of Mark, verse 8b. Forget what’s called the longer ending of Mark, verses 9-20. These are men fixing Mark. Men who didn’t like Mark’s unfinished ending and thought they could do better; reach a better end, a more satisfying resolution. There is narrative value to other endings, but I love Mark. “To no one anything they said; afraid they were for…” Are we transported to Star Wars? Is this Yoda? “Difficult to see. Always in motion the future is.” “Named must your fear be, before banish it, you can.” “…afraid they were…for.”
The truth may be there is no end to the gospel. Mark’s angel tells Mary, Mary, and Salome that Jesus is “…going ahead of you to Galilee, there you will see him, just as he told you.” Galilee is back to the beginning. The women disciples, the apostles, are in a loop—back to Galilee, back to the beginning. “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee.” Back to preaching truth, healing, setting captives free, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, telling the story that turns lives around, that upsets empires. The resurrection never ends. Jesus had a life before that horrific death. Mark’s ending points us toward that prophetic, that transformational life, begun in Galilee. We keep trying to catch up to Jesus who “…is going ahead of you.” You finish Mark and you start reading again. Everything in Mark becomes a post-resurrection appearance.
Mark is saying “Finish it. You, me. Finish it.” Christ is Risen, indeed. In you. In me. In us. In Riverside. In everybody, every community that runs from death to life. Finish it, finish the resurrection in your life, in our life, in the life of this broken, warring, pandemic laden world. Christ is Risen in our relentless pursuit, our good work, for the abundant life of all. Amen.