Triumph. That’s what Easter is supposed to be about. It’s trumpets, and hallelujahs, maybe even drums—at least at one church I served, we had drums, big kettle drums. This passage in Mark, though? Well, it doesn’t come close to eliciting feelings of joy and exultation. The story here relates how three fearful women flee the empty tomb, disobeying the angel’s explicit instructions. What instructions? To tell the disciples that Jesus has risen. We’re on the edge of our (cushioned?) pew seats expecting resolution, and it doesn’t come. And that creates in us a dis-ease. Instead of a sounding trumpet, we hear sucked-in breath, instead of loud hallelujahs, it’s whispers, and instead of the boom, boom, boom of kettle drums it’s the sound of light, fleeing footsteps on gravel.
For that reason, preachers, often eschew Mark 16:1-8 at Easter—even though every third year in the lectionary cycle, we are supposed to follow the gospel of Mark to its end. If we DO stick with the gospel of Mark for our Easter scripture reading, we rely on those helpful add-ons. You saw the add-ons at the end of the gospel of Mark if you were reading the scripture along with me a few minutes ago. You saw the short, 5 -line add-on. It was not written by the author of Mark. We know that. The writing style is just too different. Someone other than that author wrote a second ending. It’s way more emotionally satisfying. The author relates that the women do as they are told. They run tell the disciples about the empty tomb. After that, the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples and then delivers his message to the ends of the earth. TA DA! That’s triumph.
Again, if you were reading along with me a few minutes ago, you saw still another add-on. This second add-on was written by someone other than the author of Mark, too. It describes several post-crucifixion Jesus sightings. It ends with Jesus’ ascension. Another TA DA! Triumph.
These are good saves. However, in this political climate, especially, we are not hungry for triumph, so much as we are hungry for truth. We want the real deal, don’t we? We yearn for authenticity—and if that means something other than triumph, so be it. We are willing to delay our gratification, or sidestep triumph all together, and wrestle with failure. That’s it isn’t it? That’s our take on this passage isn’t it? Failure. The women at the tomb blow it.
That is in fact, what one commentator I read this week, suggests that we do, if we read this text on Easter. We start with failure.
Ugly, disheartening failure. Oh joy!
If you read through the entire book of Mark, at one sitting, as I have, failure is, sad to say, front and center. Failure by the disciples as for these women. The disciples don’t understand. They get things wrong, not much of the time, but ALL of the time. And again, in the gospel of Mark, Jesus comes off as a frustrated camp counselor, or maybe a school master trying to corral his unruly charges.
The disciples are afraid of drowning, even when Jesus tells them there is nothing to be afraid of; they are afraid of starving, even though they are aware that Jesus has the power to multiply bread and fish; they can’t heal people, as Jesus does, even when Jesus teaches them how; they sleep when Jesus tells them to stay awake-- and Peter, the head disciple, Peter—blustering blunderer above all others, pledges his faith in and allegiance to Jesus; and then a short time later, he denies Jesus three times. Oops!
Yes, some of these stories appear in the other gospels, but in Mark, the disciples’ blundering reaches a high water mark. I have sometimes wondered if the gospel writer didn’t have it “In” for the disciples. But no, better I think: Mark was just telling the painful truth that other gospel writers try to gloss over.
Failure. Jesus was surrounded by losers. And his movement, sadly, according to Mark, was on the brink of failure, too.
Crucifixion is a terrible way to go, and government-led executions in general--think hangings and beheadings, lethal injections, electrocutions, are especially horrific. They are meant to demean and humiliate. The cross has become a thing of worship in our churches—there’s even the hymn, “Lift High the Cross!” But if you trade out a cross for an electric chair, say, you get a whiff, and by that I mean foul odor, of what the cross actually smelled like in Jesus’ day.
I have a clergy colleague, who instead of a cross necklace, wears an electric chair charm around her neck—just to wake people up to that truth. From a first century, pre-resurrection perspective, Jesus himself was a failure.
This week, as I sat at my desk with failure NOT-so-gently on my mind, I recalled a book that was published a few years ago. I do what you do—I did a Google search. Turns out, ten years ago a cultural historian, his name is Scott Sandridge, wrote a book titled Born Losers: A History of Failure in America. Probably NOT a beach read! The book took him a decade to write. He says that for some of that time, he was extremely depressed. No, really? I read an on-line synopsis of it, and believe me, that was all I could emotionally handle in one week. I don’t want to take us too low today, which IS EASTER after all, you can thank me after the service, but Mr. Sandridge made some important connections that bear on our discussion. I WILL share THESE with you. So, brace yourselves:
According to author Sandridge, in our North American culture, the concept of failure has changed over time. Used to be, up until the early 1800’s in this country, a period of solid religious moorings, I might add: failure simply meant the inability to accomplish a goal. You were a failure if your crops didn’t come to harvest. You were a failure if you lost at checkers, chess or tiddlywinks—three popular parlor games in the day. You were a failure if you contracted TB and languished at home, or in a sanitarium. However, even if you were deemed a failure, you could still hold your head high--IF you were kind and compassionate and in other ways lived out your Christian faith. Your reputation depended on your character, not your accomplishments or your lack thereof.
In the late 1800’s and through the depression era, though, the concept of failure took on new meaning. A man’s, and I say man’s, because men were the breadwinners, a man and his family’s identity were directly related to HIS financial wherewithal. “My Uncle Jim used to live in a penthouse apartment in NY. But in the depression he lost everything. Now he is living in a row house, bad part of town. He’s a failure.” Uncle Jim may have been kind and considerate; he may have been a champion tiddlywinks player, but he was a failure because he had lost his money.
But we’re not done. Sometime after the depression, failure came to mean more than suffering financial reverses; If a man didn’t make enough money so that he and his family could get by comfortably; If he or a family member had health issues; if his children did not turn out right, it must be because he was lazy, or stupid, or he lacked integrity, or was defective in some other way; therefore, he deserved what he got.
THAT according to Mr. Sandridge, is the ugly reality of our culture still today. How utterly wrong, unfair, despicable. I don’t actually have enough words to say all that I mean, but you get it, right? The sign-L says it all. You know that sign. It’s not about money, or losing a game of tiddlywinks. THIS means that you are a loser-at-life.
Sandridge floats the idea, and here I am sorry that he didn’t develop it further—but he floats the idea--that our new concept of failure may be a direct result of the secularization of our culture. In a religious environment, your character, your personal ethics ARE important. But today, in the here-and-now, and out there, beyond these walls, it’s all about winning and losing.
But, let us return to the empty tomb. Jesus has been crucified, the disciples have scattered, the women come to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body with spices. An angel tells the women that Jesus has been raised from the dead. And the women flee and don’t say anything to anybody.
The women are failures. They are NOT losers, (sign) but they fail to carry through with God’s plan; they fail to understand what has happened.
Isn’t that just like the Kingdom? You know, the kingdom of God? In the kingdom of God, the first shall be last. The people at the bottom will be at the top, and a failure, a loser, someone like the prodigal son, like the disciples, like those women at the tomb, will still be worthy of a Father’s love. That’s Father with a capital F here. Our Father up there still finds them, still find US worthy.
I say our father up there finds US worthy, because who among US has not failed. WE are the disciples, WE are the women at the tomb. Yes, it turns out that in Mark, faith has everything to do with failure. But it’s not the end of the story. To use religious lingo here, we say that God REDEEMS. God redeems the women, the disciples. God, REDEEMS the Jesus movement. God redeems us. And really when you think about it, if they were already brilliant successes, if from birth on, WE were already brilliant successes, why would we need God? They fail, we fail, they and they, we try harder, confident that God’s love is enough. So difficult to accept for some reason, yet is it true.
Yes, the Jesus movement was a failure, at least by some definitions of the word. And by some definitions of the word, Jesus was a failure, too. A penniless prophet and rabble-rouser, he was hung on a cross, that first century version of the electric chair. But for Christians, Jesus is the ultimate success story. Isn’t that something? AND, he IS for now and always, our Lord and Savior. God with us.
Sound the trumpets, then. Beat those drums. Alleluia! Alleluia! Amen