Easter sermon from Boonville Presbyterian.
The text is Mark 16:1-8.
A Wall Street executive once hired a consultant from the Czech Republic to come and advise him on business matters. After a highly productive and successful series of meetings, the time had come for the consultant to return to his home country.
“I want to thank you for all you’ve done to help our company.” The executive said, “Before you return to the Czech Republic, is there anything you would like to see or do here in America?”
“Well,” the consultant said, “I have always heard such wonderful things about the zoos in America. We don’t have anything like them back home in the Czech Republic. I would really like to go to the zoo.”
So the executive makes arrangements and takes the rest of the day off in order to escort his new friend to the zoo. While they are there, the consultant is fascinated by the lions’ den. He leans as far as he can over the railing to get a good look at them. But suddenly, the unthinkable happens: he loses his balance and tumbles headfirst into the lions’ habitat! The lions are on him in a flash and devour him so quickly that there is nothing left by the time the zookeeper arrives with the police.
“Okay,” the authorities say to the executive, “You were the only eyewitness to this tragedy. Did you happen to see which lion actually ate your friend?”
The executive gives it some thought and says, “Yes. It was the male lion with the large furry mane. I’m absolutely certain that he was the one who ate my friend.”
So they shoot the male lion and open him up. Alas, the lion’s stomach was empty! So they proceed to shoot the female lion and open her up. Sure enough, there was the poor consultant in her stomach.
Now, there are two morals to this story:
The first is that you should never trust the word of a Wall Street executive who tells you, “The Czech is in the male.”
The second moral to this story is that you should never be too certain about certainty.
As a society, we tend to put a lot of stock in certainty. We buy products that come with a “guarantee.” We buy all kinds of “insurance” to protect us from anything bad that might happen. We trust the words of our political and religious officials as if they were gospel truth. But just take a minute and think about all the times in history when people lost their lives over a certainty that later turned out to be completely false?
Several years ago, there was a science fiction movie called Men In Black starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. In one scene of this movie, Will Smith has just found out that there are aliens from outer space living on Earth in disguise. Tommy Lee Jones tries to comfort him with these words about certainty: “Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.” Certainty, it seems, is a very fickle thing.
Certainty is also something that is commonly associated with people of faith. Preachers, theologians, and church goers often speak with great passion and conviction about things they know to be true, beyond any shadow of a doubt. On the other hand, those who struggle with faith are often called “agnostic” which can be translated as “not knowing” or “uncertain.” Agnostic people sometimes ask religious people questions about certainty like:
- “How can you be so sure that God exists?”
- “How can you be so sure that there’s life after death?”
- “How can you be so sure that everything will turn out for the better in the end?”
In the minds of average people (agnostic and religious alike), certainty and faith seem to go hand in hand. This association is so firmly ingrained that religious people are often made to feel a deep sense of guilt whenever they question some or all of their beliefs. Likewise, agnostic people are often made to feel like there’s no place for them communities of faith (like church). So many of them feel like they have to choose between the intellectual integrity their minds long for and the sense of reverence and belonging their hearts long for. If faith and certainty are permanently associated with one another, you have to make a choice. There is no room for questions or doubt. It’s black and white. You’re either in or out. In the minds of average people (agnostic and religious alike), that’s what faith is all about.
This morning, I want to take that preconceived notion (faith = certainty) and put it on trial next to what the Bible actually says or, more importantly, what it doesn’t say (because you can learn a lot by paying attention to what the Bible doesn’t say).
Let’s start by looking at today’s New Testament reading. Do you notice anything missing from it? We have the women who show up at the tomb. The stone is rolled away. There’s a young man in white telling them that the person they’re looking for isn’t there. They run away in fear. Do you notice anything missing? How about anyone?
Jesus! That’s right, Jesus forgets to show up to his own party! Today is Easter and we’re celebrating the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Isn’t it at least a little odd that the risen Christ doesn’t even make a single appearance in the reading?
Let me add a little more wood to this fire: today’s reading is from Mark’s gospel, which most biblical scholars agree was the first of the four canonical gospels to be written. It was probably written about thirty or forty years after the death of Jesus. Now, we don’t have any original manuscripts for this (or any other) book of the Bible. All we have are copies of copies. Sometimes, these copies differ from one another. For example, the later versions of Mark’s gospel have Jesus showing up and giving some sage advice to his disciples, but the earliest manuscripts we have end with this passage: the one where the women run away in fear at the end.
That’s kind of anti-climactic isn’t it? I mean, the resurrection is kind of the central miracle in the Christian faith. It’s the reason for today’s celebration, the highest holiday in our religion. Wouldn’t you expect a more certain and definitive record of it in the earliest accepted account of its occurrence?
Now, let me be clear, I’m not trying to argue that it did or didn’t happen. What I’m trying to point out here is that the earliest available editions of Mark’s gospel leave us with a big question mark, rather than an exclamation point. Mark simply presents us with an empty tomb and then leaves us to make up our own minds about what happened.
I think this is good news for those of us who struggle with faith (and I include myself in that number). It means that we are not required to check our brains at the door when we come into church. It means that there is a whole lot more mystery than certainty in authentic Christian faith. Most of all, it means that faith is more about staying open and asking honest questions about what might be true rather than forging and holding onto hard-and-fast answers about what we think is true.
It means furthermore that doubt is a friend of faith, not its opposite. In fact, if we’re defining faith as openness to possibility, then doubt is what makes faith possible. For those of us (like me) who worship at the empty tomb, standing there with a big question mark hanging over our heads, the only real opposite to faith would have to be certainty.
You and I seem to live in a time of unparalleled questioning. Thanks to many brilliant advances in information and communication technology, we probably know more but understand less about the incredible diversity on this planet than any generation that has come before us. We’re facing questions about science and sexuality, faith and philosophy, politics and pluralism. Whether we’re talking about robots, rocket-ships, or religion, we are already coming up with answers to tough questions that our ancestors never would have dreamed of asking.
In the face of such daunting challenges, it’s only natural (healthy, even) to feel more than a little intimidated. There are powerful voices in our society who are calling on us to return to yesterday’s answers in response to today’s (and presumably tomorrow’s) questions. These fearful folks long for the comfort that certainty brings, so they hunker down, roll up the sails, and batten the hatches, hoping that their ship has the right stuff to weather the winds of change. As those winds grow stronger and stronger, those voices of fear grow louder and louder.
It would be easy to let those loud voices and that powerful wind of change intimidate us. It would be easy to give in and huddle together below decks in hopes that the wind will eventually stop. That would be so easy to do if we didn’t know who we are, where we’ve come from, and how we got to where we are today. Our ship, the church, was made to sail in these winds. The wind is our friend. If it wasn’t for the wind, we never would have left our home port.
Allow me to offer a few examples:
Today’s wind has brought us to face controversial and challenging questions about issues like religious diversity and human sexuality. Fifty years ago, we were asking questions about whether two people of different races or ethnicities could get married and have a healthy family. There were those who said it would never work because it was unnatural and went against the established order for human society laid out in the Bible. Sound familiar? It wasn’t until 1967, in the case of Virginia v. Loving that the U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled bans on interracial marriage as unconstitutional.
Before that, folks in our church were arguing about whether or not women could be ordained to serve as clergy in our church. There were some who said it would never work because it was unnatural and went against the established order laid out in the Bible. Yet, here I am, a proud member of a generation where women in ministry are not only my peers, but also my predecessors in the pulpit. I don’t think I even need to mention the name of Rev. Micki Robinson and her epic seventeen year ministry in this church.
Before that, there were folks who stood up and proclaimed that, because all people are created equal, the institution of slavery should be abolished. People said it would never work because it was unnatural and went against the established order laid out in the Bible. They even fought a bloody war over that question. Yet, I think we can all agree that our country is better off for having faced that question and challenged its previously conceived notions.
Before that, another group of people declared that, because all people are created equal, a country should be run by democratically elected leaders and not a royal monarchy that was handed down from generation to generation by supposed “divine mandate.” These same people also had a bold new idea that church and state should remain separate, in order to protect the freedoms of both. Thus, the United States became the first country in the history of the world to be founded on an idea, rather than a common ethnic identity.
Before that, people like John Calvin and Martin Luther challenged a millennium of church tradition and authority, believing that people have the right to read and interpret the Bible for themselves, rather than waiting for some Pope to issue an authoritative doctrinal statement on behalf of the people.
Before that, a man named Jesus of Nazareth challenged the very foundation of religious and political power in his day. He proclaimed a bold new vision of the kingdom of heaven-on-earth. He gave us the core spiritual principles and beliefs that continue to shape our lives to this day.
Before Jesus, in the Hebrew Scriptures (what Christians call the Old Testament), there was a long line of Jewish prophets like John the Baptist, Jeremiah, Elijah, and Moses, who stood up to “the way it is,” questioned the legitimacy of the status quo, and proclaimed a bold and prophetic new vision of what might be possible, which leads us right back to that definition of faith as openness to possibility.
We gather together this morning to celebrate this mystery of the resurrection of Jesus. We are confronted with the image of an empty tomb and a huge question mark hanging over our heads. We are not given many concrete answers, backed up by the guarantee of certainty. But, as we have already seen, we gather at this empty tomb with a great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us. They, like us and the women at the tomb in today’s gospel story, were gripped with an overwhelming sense of fear and amazement. I can imagine us all standing there, staring into the darkness, maybe holding onto each other for support, wondering together what might be happening, not certain of anything, but open to what might be possible.
Where do you find yourself in this story today? Are you perhaps a questioning believer who is afraid to let your doubts shine, for fear that they might invalidate or undermine your faith? Are you perhaps a hopeful agnostic who yearns for a sense of transcendence and community, but is afraid that there is no place for you in any institution that calls itself a “church?” Are you perhaps one of the frightened faithful who miss the old comfort of certainty from the “good old days,” who long for an anchor for their souls amid the winds of change, and who look to answer today’s questions with yesterday’s answers? Whoever you are, I want to invite you, on this Easter morning, to join us at the empty tomb. Let us hold onto each other as we stare into the darkness together with more questions than answers, overwhelmed by that odd emotional combination of fear and amazement, and let us do our best to remain faithfully open to what might be possible for us at this time and in this place.