One of the best gifts of my many years of ordained ministry is a huge archive of memories that I can remember and at some level relive in the remembering. One of these memories I treasure was receiving one of the greatest compliments a preacher can get. It happened one Sunday many years ago. After church, someone I’d never met before said, as we were being introduced, “I really liked your sermon.” What made the comment so special was not that I had never hear that from anyone. What made it so special was the fact that it came from the lips of a thirteen or fourteen year old boy. The person he came to church with later asked him if he really meant it or was just being polite. He replied that he meant it, and when asked why, he said, “I liked the way she began with a story.”
When you think about it, that’s not a surprising comment. Everyone likes to hear a good story, and most of us remember a good story. I particularly like to hear personal stories. And when I say “stories” I don’t mean some tedious repetition of the minute details of what happened day before yesterday to someone…though I’m often enough guilty of boring others to tears with more than they ever wanted to know about something that may be important to me, but which they could care less about. You know?
I once read an article in a magazine called the Christian Century. The title of the article was “Blank Stares”, and it was about preaching. The author was addressing a conference sponsored by the Episcopal Preaching Foundation. His subject was the issue of trying to preach to people who do not want to be in church and as a result are “uninterested, unconvinced and unimpressed” by what they might hear there.
So here we are. It’s Easter. I’m standing here and my job is to talk to you about one of the most preposterous stories in the history of the world. A lot of you are visiting, and we want you to know that we’re really glad you’re here. But I’m realizing I don’t know if you really want to be here or if this is one of those times when you just couldn’t wriggle out of it. In fact. I don’t even know how many of you who are normally here would actually rather be somewhere else right now. As I thought about this, I realized that those guys in the Bible were always preaching to strangers, people who were hearing the story of Jesus for the first time. I’ve always thought that having the novelty thing might be kind of a nice advantage. But that’s not the ministry God has given me. My calling is to preach the story to you, to people who already know it at some level or another.
The resurrection story this year is from the gospel of Mark. All four of the gospels tell the story differently, but Mark’s has a strikingly different, and to me interesting “empty tomb” scene and its aftermath. In every gospel, the discovery that Jesus is no longer lying dead in the tomb is met with consternation by whoever shows up first…and who that is also changes from gospel to gospel, with Mary Magdalene being the only constant. But what we hear in Mark today is that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome came to prepare his body properly for burial, something they had not had time to do right after he died. Worried about how they’d get past the stone that sealed the entrance, they were startled to see it had already been moved. What’s more, they were frightened by the strange young man dressed in white who was sitting inside, and they were totally not comforted by his reassurances that everything was okay. This is the only gospel in which the first witnesses to the resurrection are so freaked out that they do not go and tell anyone what they’ve seen and heard.
Even though the women in the other gospels acquit themselves in more satisfying ways by overcoming their fear and spreading the news that Jesus has risen, I like this gospel. I like it because I can identify both with how these women felt and how they acted. This story taps into some of my own stories about times when I’ve been too afraid to do what someone told me or asked me to do, even when I knew I should do it. The story does go on to say that eventually these women did tell the people around Peter, and that afterward Jesus sent them out to spread the “sacred and imperishable truth to the east and to the west.”
If you’re here under duress this morning, if you’d rather be somewhere else…anywhere else, I’m truly sorry…but I’m also very glad. I know the story of Jesus’ resurrection may sound preposterous to you, and I certainly cannot prove to you that it happened. I also know that you may see no connection between your life and the events you’ve heard about today. But I can tell you that this story continues to shape my life, to inform my story in ways that are sometimes startling, sometimes painful, sometimes scary, but always, in the end, are life giving. If I could give you anything in the world today, I’d give you a deep and abiding hunger for more…more of the story and more of the God and Savior whose story it is.