Terror and Amazement?
a message by the Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme: “God Transforms Reality”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
April 4, 2021
Mark 16: 1-8
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But 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.” 8So 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.
“Terror and amazement?” Is that your Easter message title? Really, that’s the best you could come up with? If you are thinking that, or anything close to that, you have every right. Who would celebrate the most important day in history of humankind with a title like that?
Shrug. Did you listen to the Scripture lesson? Did you read it yourself? That’s what Mark said. I didn’t say it. Mark said it. Want to hear it again? That was the initial response by the three women who, by his account, were the first to go to the tomb where the body of Jesus of Nazareth had been placed, after he was crucified for being a terrorist, for being a threat to the lawful Roman government. He was crucified for being called King of the Jews, King of Israel, and that sort of thing. They executed him for it, and when he was dead as a doornail they put his body in a tomb, rolled a huge stone over the entrance. Mark tells us that the next dawn the women showed up there, wondering as they went who was going to roll the stone out of the way for them to embalm the body. That’s what the spices and oils they brought with them were for. To “anoint,” or more accurately in today’s terms, embalm the body of a dead man.
If you are here and haven’t heard this story year after year, thank you for being here. Welcome. This is a strange story for you. For those of us who have heard it year after year, after year, we have lost touch with the strangeness. We didn’t think about the risk those women took going to the grave of a convicted and executed seditionist. Imagine if Governor Pilate had posted armed guards, looking for co-conspirators. That’s what caused Peter, one of Jesus’ closets friends, if not his closest, to deny even knowing Jesus. He was afraid of being arrested and crucified too. We don’t even flinch because we don’t worry about such things. If you are a black or brown or Asian person you probably have worried or do worry about such things happening, even if you aren’t a seditionist. But those of us who are white, male, straight, and especially if we are open-carry types, we don’t worry about anyone beating us or attacking us – not for what we say or do. But if are not white, male, straight and pro-gun, you may already know what Peter was terrified of.
And most of us don’t even pay attention to the part about “a man in a white robe” sitting in an empty tomb, let alone why Mark tells us he was “sitting on the right side.” And we certainly didn’t feel alarm at the thought of what we just blithely assume was an “angel.” Now, if we actually encountered such a thing we might react differently. But we just ignore that stuff. And if you are new to this story you may wonder why no one else here blinked when I read that part about the man saying, “he is not here he has been raised.” You may have noted our jaws didn’t drop open in amazement at the part about how the dead man was going to meet Peter. I mean he had just denied even knowing Jesus of Nazareth less than 42 hours before that moment. So you have good reason to wonder why we aren’t at least amazed, if not terrified by this news.
“Amazed and terrified.” That’s what Mark says was the reaction of those 3 women who went to the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth before dawn on that Sunday morning. And most of us weren’t paying attention to that part that Mark wrote that says they went out and “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” You could probably relate to that part of the story if you were really listening. All of this sounds amazing and terrifying and the thought of leaving quickly and out of fear saying nothing to anyone about this makes a lot of sense - if you really believe it.
How did God transform an amazed, terrified, silent group of women into a faith deep enough, strong enough, to change the world? The Bible only reports a few sightings and encounters with the Risen Christ. These women had not seen Jesus at this point in the story. There are of course, more verses after this, but the earliest original copies of Mark’s Gospel ended here. Only later dated versions had the last verses after verse 8. Most real Bible scholars believe they were added for the obvious reason that ending with amazement, terror and a group of women saying nothing to anyone seemed like a strange way to end even to those earliest hearers and readers of the Gospel.
All that aside, let me get back to my point. Not many saw the “Risen Christ” in whatever original form he may have appeared in. I know there are testimonies of people seeing Jesus in some mystical, spiritual form since then. I want to suggest we change the question from “where do we see Jesus,” to “where do we see Easter?” Where do we see resurrection? Where do we encounter the living Christ? Or to my point, where do we see God transforming reality? There are certainly plenty of ways our reality needs to be transformed.
I read a story this week of one of those places. Haiti is a place of great pain and suffering. It is an island with a history of oppression and injustice and its government has only added to that pain in most cases. But a pastor told this story from Haiti to point to a place where we might see “Easter happen.” It is the story of St. John Bosco, a Catholic church in Port au Prince, the capital city of Haiti. People still gather for worship at the church of St. John Bosco.
In September 1985, Father Jean Bertrand Aristide was appointed to St. Jean Bosco church, in a poor neighborhood in Port-au-Prince. Aristide took many steps to bring resurrection, new life, first to his parish, then to his nation. “In the name of Jesus, he preached good news to the poor. His government heard that as bad news. He proclaimed a gospel of rice and beans for every person in Haiti, and his enemies called him a communist. Through a series of violent incidents, Father Aristide increasingly found himself in the middle of the struggle for a new democracy in Haiti. And he willingly accepted his role because of his passion for the Gospel and his love for his people.”
“He founded an orphanage for urban street children in 1986. Its program sought to be a model of participatory democracy for the children it served. As Aristide became a leading voice for the aspirations of Haiti’s poor and oppressed, he became a target for attack. He survived at least four assassination attempts. The most widely publicized attempt, occurred on 11 September 1988.” It had gotten so bad Fr. Aristide decided it was too dangerous to preach and lead the 9:00 a.m. mass. Thousands of Haitians showed up for church anyway. And when Father Aristide looked at the Gospel text from the lectionary, he discovered it was taken from the words of Jesus, who said, ‘For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.’ He couldn’t argue with that verse. So Father Aristide pulled himself out of bed, put on his clothes, and walked next door to the church to lead the service. Over a thousand people had gathered to worship.
“They had just finished reading the Gospel lesson when the congregation came under attack. There was a cry from the street, the smashing of rocks, and a few gunshots. Then men with red armbands stormed the gates. Over one hundred “Tontons Macoute,” a violent group of pro-government militia, attacked as police and army troops stood by doing nothing. They shot their guns. They swung their machetes. They stabbed innocent people. The church was burned to the ground. Thirteen people are reported to have been killed, and 77 wounded. Father Aristide survived by the skin of his neck and went into hiding.”
More than ten years later the church was still standing when the pastor who told this story visited there. People still worshiped there. “It is a cinder block shell without a roof. There are no pews left, nothing but a few broken blocks for anyone to sit on. Yet every sabbath, they open the doors and it's standing room only. A priest stands up to read the Bible and preach. And somebody carries in a small table where they take the bread, bless it, break it, and give it away.”
Talk about terror and amazement. The writer asks, “How can Christian people meet every week in such a place? How can they worship in a place so filled with painful memories?” He says, “It is because they know a present-tense reality that redeems all their broken hopes.” He adds, “I didn’t see it at the time, but when I got my pictures back, I saw it in a piece of graffiti on the outside of that burned-down church. Somebody took a can of black spray paint and proclaimed the Gospel on the righthand side of the front door. There it is, in just two words in the Creole language: ‘Viv Jezu.’ ‘Jesus lives.’ That is an Easter sighting. That is a sign of the Risen Christ speaking through people who are searching to move from terror and amazement to hope and faith and life.
The writer of this testimony says, “This is the testimony of the church. Some thugs tried to shut down Jesus. And God raised him from the dead. His own people were scared and scattered, and he appeared to them. In one generation after another, somebody tries to repress the church and burn it down. But Jesus Christ goes where he is needed and he gives his life.”/ This morning we, too, see it in the breaking of the bread and the pouring out of the cup.
We live in times that can seem terrifying and amazing at the same time. We may have experienced amazing things and terrifying things in our lives, but today we proclaim, “Viv Jezu,” Jesus lives. Some of us might be terrified and amazed if we were to have an encounter with the Risen Christ. Some of us might be comforted and confirmed. The thing is, whichever way that might break for us, however we might feel “poured out” by personal issues, pandemic issues, public crises, Easter still happens.
They tried to kill Christ over two thousand years ago, but they failed. Easter happened. It still does. You can see it if you go looking. Best places to look are where things are broken and emptied out. Terror and amazement still happen every day. So if you have been broken and emptied out, God promises to transform your reality. If you see someone else broken and emptied out you may be the Easter they are waiting to have happen. Either way, God still transforms reality. Easter still happens. VIV JEZU! Christ lives. AMEN.