A repost of my Easter sermon from 2012
Rev. Todd Grant Yonkman, co-pastor
Beneficent Congregational Church (Providence, RI)
Sermon for Easter Sunday
8 April 2012
Text: Mark 16-1-8
The Gospel of Mark says that early Sunday morning three of Jesus’ disciples—Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and a woman named Salome—went to Jesus’ tomb to anoint his body with spices. In Bible times there were no funeral homes. The care of the body after a person had died was left up to family and friends. Under normal circumstances, the family would have honored the body of their deceased loved one by washing it, anointing it with nice smelling oils and spices, wrapping it in a linen shroud, and then placing it in the family tomb, which was a kind of small cave with a stone placed in front to seal it. Under normal circumstances Jesus’ family would have laid him to rest. These were not normal circumstances.
Jesus had been executed by the Roman Empire for leading a movement of diverse people—poor people, people with disabilities, farmers and fishermen, tax collectors, men and women, people discriminated against because of ethnicity, culture, or class, children and adults, and even some of the educated elites of the day who questioned the status quo. Jesus healed people. He raised them from the dead. Jesus taught people to turn to God and to create a community where the last would be first and the first would be last, a place of radical hospitality, of compassion and peace. All of this made the Roman authorities nervous, so they silenced him by killing him.
When the women went to Jesus’ tomb early Sunday morning, they were being very brave and very loving. They were being very brave because if they were caught visiting the tomb of an executed criminal—an enemy of the empire—they could be arrested as traitors and co-conspirators. They were being very loving because in the confusion and panic of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion Jesus’ family and followers did not have the opportunity to give him a proper burial. Now, three days later, three of Jesus’ bravest and most loyal followers were risking their lives to pay their respects.
When the women arrived at the tomb, they found the stone rolled away. Suddenly, they were on alert. Something strange was going on. Then when they looked inside, they saw a young man dressed in white. Was he an angel!? Probably. He was sitting in an otherwise empty tomb. When they saw this, the Bible says the women became “alarmed.” This word “alarmed” is an important word in the story. The original Greek word—ekthambos—has its roots in a word that means “to strike.” Imagine the women entering the tomb and being “struck” speechless and senseless by what they saw. If someone is stunned in boxing or football, we say he got his “bell rung.” The alarm the women felt was like being stunned by a sudden blow. The women expected to find Jesus’ corpse in his tomb. Instead they met his messenger, who said, “He is not here. He is risen.” Their reaction was “alarm”—an appropriate human reaction when we are unexpectedly find ourselves on that mysterious and supernatural margin between life and death.
The alarm bells went off for me when my sister called three weeks ago. She said that she and my dad’s partner, Mark, had decided to transition dad to hospice care. Dad’s HIV doctor said that dad had a week to live. Three weeks have passed since that call, and dad is still hanging on. That’s the good news. But at the time, I wasn’t taking any chances. My brother, Chad and I got on the first flight to Grand Rapids that we could. When we arrived at dad’s house, I was alarmed to see how thin and weak he had become.
The hospital bed had been set up in the living room. When I approached it, dad could barely lift his arms to give me a hug. Dad was a six-three, 200-pound man raised on a dairy farm in northern Michigan. When I was young, I watched him stack 50-pound hay bales. Dad has had HIV since the early ‘80s. He’s had a lot of health scares, but seeing him like this was a shock. Dad said to me, “Do you have any words of wisdom that will help me get rid of this anxiety and rest in Christ’s arms?” I sat on the edge of the bed and said, “No. But I’m here and we’ll get through this together.” Dad looked at me for a second. Then he turned his head and shouted, “Mark, I need a vicadin!”
Mark came to the bed. “Are you in pain?”
“Are you anxious?”
“OK. I’ll get you an atavan.”
Dad was always one for the medications.
I’ve been preparing for this sermon for weeks—working on that atavan joke and reading up on the latest scholarship about Jesus’ resurrection. The resurrection debate hasn’t changed that much over the past 2000 years. The question still is What really happened Easter morning? Historians generally agree on two things: 1) there was an empty tomb, and 2) Jesus did appear in some form to his followers. The arguing starts when we get to the question of whether the resurrected Jesus had a literal, human body, and if so exactly what kind of body that was, or whether Jesus had a spiritual form of some sort, or whether it was all in the disciples’ heads. What I’ve discovered is that the details of what, exactly, happened Easter morning don’t really matter to me. What matters to me is that Jesus’ broken, tortured, and humiliated body was somehow redeemed. What matters to me is that just as the crucifixion was public humiliation and torture, so too the resurrection was public vindication and healing.
When I visited dad in Grand Rapids, one of the things we did was meet with his pastor to talk about funeral plans. She asked if I wanted to speak, and I said, “Yeah, sure.” The past several weeks I’ve been thinking about what I would say. A part of me just wants to say what most people say at funerals. I want to share fond memories of why I loved my dad and the good things he did for his family and the like. But I can’t change the fact that when my dad got his diagnosis 25 years ago, he took it as a death sentence. Years ago, he told me that from the day he got his diagnosis, he made it his job to teach me to live without him. I want to pretend I’m not angry that.
I want to pretend that the drugs he was given to fight the virus didn’t destroy his pancreas and his liver, which in the end will cause his demise. I want to pretend that he didn’t spend 40 years living a double life of a straight, church-going, family-oriented, business executive and a hurting, lonely, shame-filled, alcoholic, gay man looking for love where he could find it. I want to pretend that an empire of hatred and fear that demonizes difference had nothing to do with my dad’s suffering. I want to pretend that a culture that shames people who are simply trying to be who God created them to be had nothing to do with my dad’s life or his approaching death. I want to pretend that a church that exploits the gifts and talents of those same people as long as they don’t “put it in our faces” was not the sort of church that I grew up in. But I can’t pretend. And I won’t. It wouldn’t do dad’s memory justice.
My resurrection hope is that when dad dies, he will go to heaven and rest in Christ’s arms. That’s all he wants, and I am confident he will. But resurrection hope isn’t just dad or you or me getting into heaven—as wonderful as that will be. If that’s all it means, then the forces of hatred, oppression, violence, and despair have won. What do they care where we go beyond the grave as long as they can exploit people here and now? The resurrection was public as well as personal, communal as well as individual. Resurrection hope gives me the courage to keep trying to create with a community where people are no longer shamed for who they are. A place where we sing: