A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
by The Rev. Paul Woodrum
+In the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the center of Mark's rather abrupt account of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus is the statement, "he is going ahead to Galilee; there you will see him."
Without these directions, Mark's account of the resurrection would read like a boilerplate plot outline for a Sci-Fi channel scary mystery thriller. Consider how it begins. There are three women trying to slip unnoticed through pre-dawn darkness. One senses some unexpected evil may be lurking at each turning. Where are they headed? A cemetery! A pet-sematary-night-of-the-living-dead graveyard to do what women have always done, clean up the mess men had made and left.
I started out while it was still dark this morning, the only light the Paschal moon bright in the sky. As I was making my way to St. Albans on the elevated J train, we came around the great curve into Cypress Hills as the first hint of dawn was lighting up the little gray houses of the dead that stretch from near the tracks up to and over the ridge of the hill. I was contemplating these seemingly endless acres of death when suddenly, from an overhead speaker, my reverie was broken by the words, "If you see anything suspicious..."I squinted through the car window looking for something suspicious. It's Easter morning. Who knows? Maybe graves opening or angels ascending and descending or at least a trumpet quartet on the ridge ready to sound "Sleepers Awake" as the sun rises over Jamaica Bay. But though it is Easter Day, all was quiet. Nothing unusual. Nothing suspicious.
It's the same with our three women. Nothing suspicious, only their own suspicions along the way. The surprises don't start until they arrive at the burial place and at the tomb where Jesus was quickly interred on Friday before sunset. While they don't seem to have said much about it, we can be pretty certain they were all wondering how the stone with which the tomb had been sealed could be rolled away. But when they arrive, the first surprise is the entrance to the tomb is open. They go inside looking for the body of jesus they had seen so hastily buried without proper preparation a day and a half before. Second surprise: in the tomb there is no body. Not even a brightly colored egg or yellow, sugary peep or chocolate bunny.
One Easter I was asked to say mass at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Tottenville, Staten Island. If you're not familiar with Tottenville, it is probably the southernmost town in New York. It is so far south -- all together, "How far south is it, Father?" -- it is so far south that, if your papers are in order, you can pass directly in Georgia. Anyway, after we had finished the pro-anaphora, the Word of God and the Prayers of the People, the somewhat eccentric deacon who was serving as interim pastor got up and said what I didn't expect: "Now, Father Woodrum has told us everything we need to know about Easter except one thing. He didn't say a word about the Easter bunny!"
Mark also forgets to mention the Easter bunny. When the ladies got to the tomb, they didn't find what they expected. There was no body and no bunny. What they also didn't expect to find was a young man sitting inside the tomb who asked them why they were looking for Jesus who obviously wasn't there.
Their reaction was amazement and fright. now these were sound, solid Episcopal Church Women, strong in faith and not much afraid of anything, quite ready to deal with a dead and decaying corpse. Yet they fled the tomb in fear, not saying anything or telling anyone what had happened to them. With this scary cliff hanger Mark ends his account. Not such a bad plot for a thriller, horror flick, but somehow lacking as the religious experience with power to change the world.
It hardly provides us with enough motivation to send us to the mall shopping for a new outfit or to get us up and scrubbed and dressed in our best to come here this morning. If that is all there is, we might as well have slept in, brewed a pot of coffee or made a cuppa tea, leisurely perused the Times or clicked on the TV for a holiday movie marathon or those smug, Sunday morning political pundits.
Let's circle back. Back to that moment when the three disciples, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome enter the tomb and encounter the young man. Now, I like to keep my Bible images up-to-date and fresh. I picture him sitting there in a shiny white, made-in-Mexico, polyester suit and tie, with white shirt, that he'd gotten for that very first Easter at a discount from Syms, a pair of white bucks from Payless and chatting into his cell phone (you just aren't cool without a cell phone).
As soon as he sees his guests, being an angelic young man, he says adieu, snaps shut his cell phone and greets them with, "Do not be alarmed;" -- angelic types always say things like that. It lends the occasion gravitas. -- "you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. he has been raised, he is not here (something they had already noticed). Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you."
"He is going ahead of you to Galilee, there you will see him." These words, I would suggest, hold the key to what Mark is trying to tell us about the resurrection. Galilee is not simply a geographical location. It is a recalling, an anemnesis, a bringing into the present all they had experienced with Jesus and a calling to follow him and take up the radical reform and ministry he had begun.
It was in Galilee that Jesus began his preaching and teaching and healing. It was in Galilee that he had called his disciples. It was in Galilee that Mary, Mary and Salome had themselves become disciples and from which they had followed all the way to the cross and now to the tomb. It was in Galilee that Jesus was baptized by John and there that he began to live into the messianic prophecies of the Old Covenant, preaching the Good News to the poor. In Galilee water was made wine, a withered hand restored, a blind man's sight returned, demons driven out and the lame leaped. It was in Galilee that the foundation was laid and the movement built for Jesus' attack on the corruption of the Temple priesthood and there that he called Israel to a law of love surpassing love of the law.
In other words, Jesus will not let us waste time looking for him in a tomb, but leads the way into Galilee, into a new day, into a new world, into a radical new discipleship.
The temptation we face is staying at the tomb to look for Jesus or constructing tombs to keep him put for our own use and comfort. I have a friend who is always talking about the "historical" Jesus, the Jesus of 30 to 33 AD whose story, he fumes, got totally blown out of proportion and distorted by the likes of John the Evangelist and Paul the Apostle. he wants to keep Jesus in the tomb of history and not move on to the Galilee where Jesus meets his disciples in every generation.
Some would entomb Jesus in the Middle Ages, that great Christian era when bishops and kings and towns competed with each other to see who could build the grandest cathedral: Chartres with its glowing glass, Cologne with its twin openwork spires completed six centuries afters its foundations were laid, Salisbury with its soaring sinking spire and Wells with kings and saints standing seriatim row on row, rank on rank, Santiago de Compestela, the pilgrims goal, and Alba, church and fort combined. Their solemn, holy beauty tempts us to linger, to say Jesus is here, but he calls us on to Galilee.
Or we entomb Jesus in the Victorian morality of our own great Episcopal era of influence and affluence. We pour buckets of money into preserving the brownstone Gothic revival churches scattered throughout the two dioceses, Long Island and New York, and the five counties, New York, Richmond, Kings, Queens and the Bronx, as if somehow their preservation will keep Jesus put while all around us the city changes. But Jesus will not stay embalmed in the tomb of our comfortable Episcopal quaintness, but calls us to meet him in Galilee.
To go to Galilee is to meet the risen Jesus in the faces of those in want. To go to Galilee is to meet the risen Jesus in the faces of those who suffer in spirit or body or those who are cast out or cast down. To go to Galilee is to live into obedience as he did and for which he died and rose again.
At the end of every mass, after we have been inspired by God's word and refreshed with the risen body and blood of our Lord at his table, it is the deacon's job to kick us out lest we be tempted to turn even this church into a tomb. It is the deacon's duty, like that of the young man in the tomb, to send us forth into the world, on to Galilee, strong in the peace of God, to love our Lord and neighbor and to serve wherever there is need, remembering,
"He is going ahead to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you."
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