Isaiah 25:6-9; Mark 16:1-8
Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.
We are living in an extended, liminal time, on the threshold between what was and what will be. For the second year in a row, we find ourselves in an Easter Sunday of exile from community, family and friends, where we can only see dimly through a veil of fogged glasses and masked smiles. For this unusual Easter, I decided on unusual scripture readings. Rather than having our familiar Easter reading from the Gospel of John, I have chosen other readings, also given to us in today’s lectionary, but which we usually skip over. But in this unusual time, they seemed appropriate.
Isaiah pictures for us a lavish feast, where all are set free from captivity and invited to a banquet overflowing with the best of food and wine for everyone. These people have been beset by grief and death, but now, God wipes away their tears, removing anything that might be a cause of disgrace or upset. In this passage from Isaiah—eerily accurate in predicating today’s pandemic, God offers healing for a pall of death that has settled over every nation throughout the world. And the people will once again be glad of heart and rejoice in God’s redemption for the whole world.
The pall of death that is surging in a third wave today will not last forever. God has gifted humanity with wisdom and knowledge to create and deliver a vaccine in record time. There will be more variants, but there will also be more vaccines. With this assurance, there will be a time in the not-so-distant future when we will once again be able to feast and be glad together. With the hope of Isaiah’s vibrant picture, we now turn to the story of the resurrection through the eyes of the Gospel of Mark.
Mark is the earliest of the gospels in our Bible and it is the one which our lectionary has focussed on for this year. Our Lenten Study groups have been reading through the Gospel of Mark. You have probably never have heard Mark’s description of the resurrection read before in church, because it is brief and leaves us with a very odd and unsettling ending.
All four gospels tell us that the women were the first to discover the empty tomb. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, their reaction is fear. Anything out of the ordinary in that terrorizing time of Roman rule provoked fear. But when they learn that Jesus the Christ was risen from the dead, they are overwhelmed with joy and run to tell the others. At least, that is what John, Matthew and Luke write. Mark tells us that they simply fled in fear and told no one. Later editors of Mark were so disconcerted with his ending that they added others endings, which you’ll find in your Bible. The editors wanted to assure the reader than indeed, the women did tell others about the risen Christ, when they eventually found their voice.
But in the original version of Mark, we are left with fear and silence. The story of Christ’s resurrection remains unfinished. We will never know why Mark ended his gospel with such an abrupt, hanging end. But one of its effects is to draw us into the story. It doesn’t end with Christ’s appearance to the disciples. It remains open so that we become part of the story. We hear the words of a stranger addressed to us: “Jesus of Nazareth is not here. He has been raised. And he is preparing a place for you.” We, along with the women at the empty tomb, are being urged not to hang on to what was, but to look towards what will be.
The risen Christ is pointing us towards the future, when we will once again be able to sit with one another, rejoicing and feasting together at a table prepared for everyone in the whole world. The risen Christ gently takes our hand and helps us move on from unfinished deaths of loved ones whose lives cannot yet be celebrated with friends and family. The risen Christ bends open the bars of captivity that imprison us in lonely cells of solitude. The risen Christ is preparing a place where all of us—those of us living and those who have passed on—can finally be together once again.
This is the resurrected hope of eternal life that begins not in an after-life, but right here, right now. Life moves through death into life again and the great homecoming starts now, for we are in the presence of a great cloud of witnesses. Those who have passed on are cheering us onwards, helping us not to linger over their deaths, but to be strengthened by them in this life. We are connected to every living thing and every living organism exists in a cycle of life and death.
Louise Driscoll writes, in her poem Easter Garden,
You may bring your care to a garden,
You may bring your grief,
The garden knows the touch of frost,
And the falling leaf.
The garden knows the beating wind
And the bitter rain.
You may come to a garden
With your pain.
But when you come to a garden
You will always find
Something that you have carried
Is left behind.
For there is hope in a garden,
And every garden knows
There is a time for iris,
An hour for the rose.
The dark green gift of cedar
Is wise in comforting,
And the rested dead of Winter
Arise and bloom in Spring.
The wisdom of a garden
Is packed in the brown seed
That finds in the grave the color
And perfume that it needs.
The risen Christ invites us to leave behind our unfinished grieving and look for Christ in the place already prepared for us. There, we will see Christ, with outstretched arms of welcome to a table for all. The place that Christ has prepared for us is not only in the future. It is right here, in this time and place, on this very Easter Sunday morning. It is possible to see the risen Christ right here.
Westworth’s mission statement is to be the hands and feet of Christ within Westworth and beyond. We are to be the body of the risen Christ. Our prayer is that others will see Christ in our words and in our actions. Today, our confirmands have committed themselves to following the way of Jesus. (to confirmands) This means that you will each try to act and speak in a manner that reflects Jesus’ compassion and love. You will be offering yourselves as Christ’s hands and feet. Yes, you will fail, as we all fail, but Christ Jesus is also full of forgiveness and offers all of us chance upon chance to try again and again to be his hands and feet.
Now here’s another challenge. Just as we would like others to see Christ in us, it’s important for us to see Christ in them. It’s particularly difficult when we don’t like them. But instead of focussing on their defects of character, let’s try to see some aspect of Christ’s compassion and kindness in them. Everyone has a mix of strengths and weaknesses. No one is totally evil, for God has created each one of us with a divine, inner spark of goodness. So—let’s try to see the strengths in others. When we do that, we will learn how to see the risen Christ living through us and through everyone we meet.