by Ellen Sims
text: Mark 16:1-8
“When I am a woman — O, when I am a woman,
my wells of salt brim and brim,
poems force the lock of my throat.”
–from the poem “Cancion” by Denise Levertov
The preacher’s prayer before the sermon:
May poetry force the lock of my throat, God of resurrection hope.
Poetry is the language for Easter Sunday. Only poetry and music can speak of resurrection. And it’s from the voices of women that Mark’s poetry of resurrection was transmitted . . . eventually . . . from the unlocked throats of Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome. Of course, Mark’s version of the Easter story ends with the terrified women saying nothing. Yet.
Before we see Easter through the eyes of three first-century Jewish women, let’s hear from a twenty-first century African American woman living right here in Mobile who also testifies to resurrection: Clara Ester. That’s Clara E-s-t-e-r, one letter shy of Easter. Fifty years ago this week Clara Ester was bending over the body of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Lorraine Motel balcony in Memphis. This week her rarely-told story was on the front page of USA Today.
At the time of King’s assassination, Clara was a college junior helping organize the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. Although her pastor, Rev. James Lawson, was a civil rights leader training people in nonviolent tactics, Clara was being drawn to a local group called the Invaders who sometimes used violence. Ms. Ester today admits her outrage at injustice led her to throw a few Molotov cocktails back then. But her pastor’s and Rev. King’s commitment to nonviolence impressed her, too, and when a King aide, in town for the sanitation workers’ strike, invited Clara and her friend Mary to dinner at the Lorraine Motel one evening, they accepted. The two young women arrived in the motel parking lot as King and other aides were appearing on the balcony. When shots rang out, Clara and her friend instinctively raced up the stairs to the balcony. She loosened Rev. King’s belt. She watched his life blood pour out. She saw in his face a look of peace.
In the iconic photograph of aides pointing from the Lorraine Motel balcony to the direction of the shooter, Clara is there, hidden except for her arm and feet, behind her friend. And for fifty she rarely spoke of her brush with history—until this week’s article.
But her life has testified to its impact. She had many opportunities after college, but she “accepted an assignment from the UMC to revamp a community center in Crichton, AL. . . . Over the next 36 years she transformed the Wesley Dumas Community Center” here “into a social services powerhouse.”
Clara Ester saw King’s death as a “crucifixion,” but “she also believe[d] in resurrection.” She explained: “Dr. King has lived on. He is still alive today, he is the driver behind Black Lives Matter, women’s rights, gay rights. . . . He gave us that dream of a better world where we could live in harmony. He lived that, and it still lives in a lot of us.”
If King’s story is a modern resurrection story, Clara Ester is, like the women in Mark’s Gospel, a bearer of that story.
Let’s return now to Mark’s resurrection story, entering Easter’s empty tomb with three women who’ve come to perform burial rites. But when we become these Easter women, old duties suddenly seem as pointless as anointing a dead body that can no longer be found, as senseless as anointing some dead doctrines of Christianity that no longer give life. Suddenly, new possibilities seize us with both “terror and amazement” (Mark 16:8).
You deserve some background on Mary, Mary, and Salome, our avatars at the tomb, but the Gospels reveal little, tradition is inconsistent, and surely these characters serve a literary not literal function. Indeed, the four Gospels offer four different resurrection stories with four different casts of characters at the empty tomb. They can’t all be factual. Mark’s claim that even the women fled is best understood by remembering Mark previously reported the male disciples had either betrayed, denied, or deserted Jesus while the women had stayed near the cross and dared to visit his tomb while the men hid. The women’s flight from the tomb was Mark’s way of signaling, in the final words of his story, that even the women ran away at the very end.
Let’s also recall that these women earlier witnessed the torture and death of the prophet, teacher, and beloved friend who’d brought them healing and hope. In an atmosphere of betrayal and conspiracy, how could they trust or even make sense of the stranger’s message that the crucified Jesus would meet them later in Galilee? So they ran away. And told no one. Mark ends not with a triumphant proclamation that “He is risen!” but with fear and silence.
I emphasize that unsettling point because it is not how you THINK the story ends. Each Gospel presents a very different account of Jesus’s resurrection, and you might have subconsciously added some details to today’s reading that are not there.
Look back at the Gospel reading to see if your eyes and ears deceived you. Did you notice that in the resurrection story which concludes the Gospel of Mark, the resurrected Jesus never appears? We glimpse an empty tomb and a man (not an angel, by the way) telling the women that Jesus is risen. But a post-resurrection Jesus does not appear to the women, does not allow the doubting Thomas to see the nail prints in his hands, does not ascend into heaven. Look back at the final verses and keep in mind these are the final verses of Mark’s entire biography of Jesus, our oldest Gospel and the one Matthew and Luke took as their main source. Mark ends abruptly with the statement that the women fearfully keep the story to themselves, contrary to the messenger’s command. If Mark had been the only Gospel to survive, we would have an empty tomb and the secondhand testimony from an anonymous man who told the women Jesus had risen. We would not know if the women believed this stranger. We would only know they had run away, and though the man in white told them to tell the others Jesus was alive, the book ends with the narrator’s statement that they did not.
Of course, if we had only Mark’s Gospel, we’d still recognize that someone at some point told of this experience, else the Marcan community would not have passed along the story to us! But Mark does not attest to any original disciple sharing that Jesus had been raised to new life.
Okay. Some versions of Mark do add another twelve verses that mention appearances of Jesus to various people and his ascension to heaven. But many scholars agree those twelve verses were added to Mark later in at least two stages, and the two best manuscripts omit them. We can forgive an overly zealous scribe for wanting to correct an ending that hardly seemed to ring with Easter enthusiasm.
But the additions by one or more copyists, eager to affirm the eternal Christ, likely hindered future readers from recognizing Mark’s rhetorical method. Some scholars think the original ending is the culmination of a brilliant strategy Mark has been building up to all along. Over and over Mark shows us that the disciples do not understand Jesus’ mission.
Repeatedly, Jesus urges them NOT to tell anyone what they have seen and heard because they still do not comprehend the meaning and methods of God’s reign. They are not capable of transmitting the Good News yet. But after the cruel cross, after the empty tomb, Jesus’s way of radical love is unmistakable. At last his followers can understand. At last they are commissioned to tell the Good News.
And that is when, ironically, the most perceptive, the women, flee in fear and confusion. They get it. Can they live it? And the story ends.
But we understand. Mark plays to the reader’s understanding in contrast with the original disciples’ lack of understanding. Mark’s first readers already affirmed that Jesus was resurrected and was alive in their faith community. Mark’s first readers were living through persecution and peril and were themselves beset by fear. The rhetorical move that Mark makes is to invest them with the responsibility of carrying on the work of Jesus, to be the faithful ones in contrast with the first disciples. And 2000 years later, you and I also read of the women’s silence and WE can resolve to carry forward the Good News. We feel responsible for continuing the Way of Resurrection. We know that it’s now up to us.
Of course, such realizations dawn slowly. It is no wonder the resurrection took a symbolic three days. Mary, Mary, and Salome could not perceive the resurrection of Jesus immediately. But in the forty years between Jesus’s state execution and the writing of the Gospel of Mark, the Marcan community had time to make meaning together out of the beauty of Jesus’ life and the horror of his death and the continued real and transforming presence of his Spirit among them. Gradually and communally they created this story of what the vital, healing, transforming way of Jesus meant to them.
And this is why I suggested we become the women. So we realize the point of Mark’s seemingly unacceptable ending is that we NOT allow the story to end there. We take up the women’s role. Mark’s clever rhetorical choices make the readers into the sole possessors of the Gospel. Like those who first read Mark’s Gospel, we should come away feeling that it’s up to us to carry on the mission of Jesus. Just as Ms. Clara Ester believed it was up to her to carry on the work of Dr. King and tell it with her life. We have heard the resurrection story. The story lives on as long as we tell it with our lives.
Sure, the story continues to get extended and reinterpreted and sometimes manipulated and mangled. The beautiful story of Easter gets co-opted by Hallmark and Cadbury.
And we need some time before the poetry unlocks our throats, time for the story to unfold in our hearts and lives.
Occasionally one of you will say something like this to me: “Sometimes I wish I hadn’t returned to church after all these years. It was easier not to think about Jesus. It’s hard now to rethink Christianity and try to live in ways that are consistent with Jesus’s life. It’s all harder than I thought.”
Resurrection happens slowly and communally. Sometimes our first impulse is to run from a bracing or unexpected word. That’s okay. Because the Spirit of truth and love will lure us back. Even the good news of Progressive Christianity now reviving a moribund church frightens some. But our mission at Open Table is not to put Christianity on life support. It’s scary when religious assumptions are questioned, when the parts of Christianity we once held as essential are stripped off like binding grave clothes so we are free to walk out of religion’s tomb. But a new self, a renewed church comes out of that darkness.
And be assured, friends, that our congregation is not alone in recognizing that a “spiritually renewed and intellectually credible Christianity” is undergoing resurrection. Diana Butler Bass is one of many suggesting that what we at Open Table are doing is in line with a growing movement of churches asking new questions and trying to “reform, reimagine, and reformulate” church to resurrect “a heart-centered Christianity.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/diana-butler-bass/a-resurrected-christianit_b_1410143.html?ref=fb&src=sp&comm_ref=false#sb=1329620,b=facebook).
The body of Christ, which is the Church, is being resurrected. Again.
Like the women in the story, we are both amazed and terrified. In fact, we don’t quite have the poetic vocabulary for this resurrection of our individual and congregational lives. But when we are the women of the story just beginning the resurrection process, Gospel poems force the lock of our throats. We proclaim:
Christ is risen! Alleluia!