Psalm 118.22-29

Mark 16.1-8

The Day Nothing Happened

Easter 2018

There are at least five different tellings of the story of Jesus’ resurrection in the New Testament: the four gospels and a fifth by the apostle Paul in I Corinthians. Personally, I’ve always been drawn to the version Nancy just read for us from Mark. To me, Mark is straightforward, doesn’t waste your time with a lot of extraneous details and goes directly to the point. In fact, Mark’s story is so spare and unadorned that it is almost like he is giving us as little information as possible, and then dares us to believe.

It took author Joseph Heller thirteen years to write his second novel. Heller’s first, the classic Catch-22, became so successful that for a long while it vexed him into wondering if he could ever write anything as good, as masterful as Catch-22 ever again. So he labored over his second book, false start after false start, until, as I said, thirteen years later, he published his next, the nearly 600 page novel called Something Happened. And nobody liked it. The reviews were scathing, bordering on cruel. By far the worst came, if I recall correctly, from The New Republic, whose entire review consisted of only two words. Their estimation of Something Happened was this: nothing happened. Now, time has been kinder to Heller than The New Republic, and in a 2015 reconsideration of the novel, The Los Angeles Times said that Heller’s second book is “the most criminally overlooked great novel of the past half-century.” As an avid admirer of Catch-22, I did read Something Happened when it first came out, and though I can’t say it was a great novel, I can’t say it was a horrible one either.

            I thought about that two-word review, “nothing happened,” when I read Jennifer Brownell’s piece in the Lent Devotional we’ve been reading together these past seven weeks; she titled her reflection “Silent Wednesday,” and begins by saying, “Today [which was this past Wednesday of Holy week], the day between the adoring crowds of Sunday and the chanting mobs of Friday, is sometimes called Silent Wednesday, since the Bible doesn’t tell us what Jesus did that day. It was just an ordinary day in an extraordinary week.” So Brownell muses about what Jesus might have done on the day when nothing happened, the day just before the Last Supper, betrayal and arrest. Did Jesus go for a walk, she wonders, did he share a meal with friends, did he offer some simple wisdom to followers, did he shed a tear over what might come next? We really don’t know, Jennifer writes: “On Wednesday, the cameras were off. There is no email trail, no security camera footage, no social media updates, no #WednesdayCoffeeWithMyLordandSavior.”

            Jennifer was describing Wednesday of Holy Week. But if you listened closely to Mark’s story of the resurrection, a mere eight verses of chapter 16, you may be excused for wondering if she might have been describing Sunday as well. What happened on the first day of the week as Mark tells it? Well, if we stand Mark’s story aside the other four versions, we might be better served by asking the question, “What didn’t happen?” Yes, the women went to the tomb, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome carried spices to anoint Jesus’ body. But when they got there, the stone that had sealed the tomb was rolled away, the body was nowhere to be seen, and instead a young man in a white robe had a message for the women: “Don’t be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here... 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.” So as it turns out, the women did not anoint Jesus’ body, because it wasn’t there. They didn’t actually see the resurrection – no one did, not in any of the Easter stories – and Mark goes on to say, “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.”

The End.

            Wait a minute. Is this one of those movies where you need to watch the last reel again, because you obviously missed something important in that very last scene? “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.” Well, if they didn’t say anything to anyone, then how do we know…?

            Well, of course, something happened, but before we can truly appreciate what that is, we have to know what did not happen in Mark. And it bears noting that Mark was written first, and so much of what the others wrote about the resurrection comes from this story in front of us this morning. So the women did not anoint the body of Jesus. They did not witness the resurrection. They did not say anything to anyone, not even the story of the young man at the tomb. And, finally just for good measure, just in case we have missed Mark’s not-so-subtle cues, there is no post-resurrection appearance of Jesus. Mark’s is the only gospel where Jesus does not visit the disciples after being raised. So: no anointing, no body, no witnesses, no testimony, no Jesus.  The End. What in the world did Mark just do to us? It is almost as though Mark is giving us as little information as possible, and then dares us to believe.

            If this story sits uncomfortably with us, then at least we are in verygood company. Mark’s unsatisfactory conclusion was a scandal from the very day it was published. You might say it was the Something Happened of the first century: nobody liked it. In fact if you were following along in the pew Bible as Nancy read, you will have noticed not just one, but two different endings have been awkwardly tacked on to the end of Mark’s story. The early church just could not abide a resurrection story that ended this way, and so fabricated two additional endings to fill in the blanks.

            In John’s gospel, Thomas said he would not believe that Jesus had been raised unless he could see the nail marks in Jesus’ hands and the wound in his side where he had been pierced on the cross. And, as the story goes, Jesus allowed him to do so. But then do you remember Jesus’ response? He admonished Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” I think Mark tells the story of the resurrection the way he does because faith is born of belief and conviction, and not from first-hand evidence.   This is why I smile whenever someone thinks they have found yet another piece of the “true cross,” or when the shroud of Turin has been carbon-dated to about the time of the resurrection, or when a fragment of Noah’s ark just might have been discovered in Turkey. The resurrection of Jesus, as Mark’s story reveals, is neither qualifiable nor quantifiable. As the writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews tells us, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Mark, whose gospel was written closest to the actual events as they occurred, says no one saw the resurrection? That’s OK. No one saw the risen Jesus? Perfectly fine. The women did not say anything to anyone? No need for it. “He is not here; he is risen.” This is all we need to know. Believe it or don’t believe it. If you do, you don’t need any more evidence than the inclination of your own heart; if you don’t, then mountains of evidence are not going to change your mind. In fact, I would argue – and this is just me – that a faith that depends on verifiable evidence is a precariously fragile faith.

            But to say that resurrection faith cannot be proven is not to say that it cannot be demonstrated. In fact you and I are living witnesses to its reality this morning, because the resurrection of Jesus Christ has created this community we call the church. Together you and I live out the love of the risen Jesus together. When we at the United Church feed the hungry in our Valley Shore community every single Sunday night, we demonstrate the resurrection. When we open our doors on a regular basis to people struggling with alcohol addiction, we live out the resurrection. When we fill back packs for local school children because their parents can’t afford basic supplies, we demonstrate resurrection community. When we provide food items at Thanksgiving and toys at Christmas for our neighbors, we live out resurrection community. And when our Congregational brothers and sisters in Old Lyme provide sanctuary for families on the verge of being forcibly separated and deported, this too reveals the presence of the risen Christ in our community and our world. If the resurrection can be proven anywhere, it is proven on a daily basis by the ways we create and sustain community in the name of Jesus, even if we have difficulty locating it in what David Rhoads of Chicago’s Lutheran School of Theology delightfully calls “the subtlety and ambiguity of Mark’s marvelously exasperating ending.”

            Something happened all right. There were about seventy-five to eighty hearty souls this morning gathered in the gloom and rain high on the hill in Deep River to greet the sunrise this Easter morning. Guess what? We did not see the sun. Not even a glimpse. But the sky lightened nonetheless. The bagpipes played, we sang our Alleluias, we shared our Easter greetings with our brothers and sisters from Chester and Deep River and Essex and beyond. Because even though none of us saw it, we knew the sun had risen and a new day had dawned, and God once again called us together into Christian community.

Something happened in Joseph Heller’s second novel. I’m not going to spoil it for you if you choose to read it, but let me simply say it has parallels to the events of Holy Week that you and I just experienced together. What to human eyes may very well look like an ordinary book - or an ordinary day – or an ordinary week when little if anything happened, the presence and reality of the living God in the risen Christ tells us something most definitely happened indeed.

Christ is risen; Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia and Amen.

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