He Is Not Here

Sermon for Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015
Text: Mark 16:1-8
Preached at Amherst Presbyterian Church, Amherst, VA

The Gospel for this Easter Sunday is that burying things in the ground isn’t always the best strategy.

Just ask Ezra Sigwela. These days Sigwela is the South African Ambassador to Rwanda. But forty years ago, Sigwela was a political prisoner held on Robben Island, in Cape Town Harbor, a prison-mate of Nelson Mandela’s, during the height of South Africa’s Apartheid regime. Last fall I stood in the cell where Sigwela spent so many years of his adult life, and the poster on the wall tells this story. It seems that by the late 70’s the prisoners at Robben Island were seeing more and more of their colleagues being re- arrested, coming right back as soon as they were released, and that part of the problem was that in the rural parts of the country, where the resistance needed to find shelter, folks on the ground weren’t sufficiently persuaded of the righteousness of the rebel cause. Of course there wasn’t much anyone could do about that from prison, except write. And so one of Sigwela’s prison-mates, Govan Mbeki, wrote something of a manifesto about the need to spread the revolutionary cause throughout the country. Sigwela called it a masterpiece.

The problem, of course, is what to do with it once you’ve got it written down. You’re still in prison. You can’t just put it in the mail, or fax it to a friend, or post it on Facebook. Sigwela claims that he made copies by hand, though he says nothing about trying to get those copies off the island, and I found no evidence that Mbeki’s manifesto ever reached the mainland itself. Instead, Sigwela went with the well-worn strategy often chosen by the activist intellectuals that found themselves locked up on Robben Island: he took the manuscript, and he buried it: “I thought that when we were free, I could go back to the island and retrieve it,” he writes, “So I decided to bury it. Burying documents became part of the culture. I buried the document in the industrial complex because I did not think that they would renovate or dig there. I wrapped the document in plastic, put it inside a Milo tin and buried it two strides from the outside toilet. To mark the distance from the wall, I planted a peace tree. I planted that tree in 1978 and I thought that if I ever come back to the island, I would see this tree two strides away from the wall.”

The problem, of course, is that burying things in the ground isn’t always the best strategy. First of all, for twenty years, nobody ever read this document — however much of a masterpiece it was, it had no circulation beyond the population already stuck on that island. But even later. In January of 1998, long after Apartheid fell, long after Sigwela had been made a free man, in 1998, twenty years later, he returned to Robben Island to retrieve his buried treasure. What he found, instead of a peace tree planted two strides from a bathroom, was a whole layer of cement covering the entire yard. As far as I know, no tree, no bathroom. Certainly no Milo tin. No masterpiece. Whatever use Mbeki’s words might have once been, they’re not there. Admittedly, the fight against Apartheid by then is more or less over. But still, it would have been an amazing memorial to the time that had been. So you can imagine the disappointment. All that work. All that deferred hope. All those years of expectation. Buried, perhaps forever.

You can imagine the disappointment. I imagine it to be not unlike how these poor women in Mark’s Gospel must have felt, coming to the tomb early that morning after the sabbath. In Mark’s account, Mary Magdelene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome come to the tomb with spices to anoint Jesus’s body. In Mark’s account, the body has not already been anointed, and normal Jewish burial practices of the time would leave the body quickly open to rot and decay, so it was common practice to wrap it with spices and perfumes so as to preserve for family members their ability to visit and revere the body for as long as possible, likely until it had decayed to the point of ossification. Which means that for these women this anointing is not an entirely selfless act: they believe in a future in which the body of their savior will serve as a memorial to the time has been. About as useful as Mbeki’s buried manuscript: a museum piece, a relic; the fight’s over, but we have this artifact from the time that was. So you can imagine the disappointment when they show up and he’s just not there. That’s what this strange young man in the tomb tells them, as if they needed it explained. “You’re looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. Look, there is the place they laid him. But he is not here.”

Of course, Jesus does show up, eventually. Strictly speaking, Mark’s Gospel isn’t quite over yet, and in the few stray verses that follow this morning’s readings, we seem to get Mark’s take on Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances. But this tacked-on ending doesn’t show up in our best and earliest copies of Mark’s Gospel, and, stylistically, it doesn’t match the tone of the rest of Mark’s writing. There’s wide consensus that what we’ve got in the verses that follow our reading for today is a kind of epilogue that doesn’t really belong, and if you’ve got a study bible at home with some footnotes in it I’m willing to bet they’ll say the same thing. Which means Mark’s real story of the resurrection begins and ends in today’s reading, and in this real version, Jesus never shows up. There’s no communion on the lakeshore; there’s no walk along the Emmaus Road; there’s no Great Commission from the mountaintop. There’s no Jesus in this Easter story. He’s not here. That’s the whole point: these women come looking; they know exactly where Jesus is supposed to be; but he’s not there.

Some years ago, my friend John and I were on a road trip together and found in some store of oddities in San Francisco what I can best describe as a Bobblehead Jesus doll. This was 2002 — it was about the high-water-mark of the bobblehead craze, when it seemed like every sporting event in America was giving out these bobblehead dolls, little ceramic or plastic dolls of celebrity figures with heads mounted on springs that would, as the name implies, bobble back and forth. So you would go to the game and the first 5,000 fans would get a bobblehead Barry Bonds or a bobblehead Shaquille O’Neal or what have you. But the craze had gotten big enough that now somebody had gone to the effort to manufacture a bunch of bobblehead dolls of famous historical figures, and some store had gone to the effort to stock them, and that’s how John ended up with his very own Bobblehead Jesus. And if you think this story reflects poorly upon the holiness of your pastor, I’d like you to remember two things: 1) we were young; and 2) it’s John’s fault.

That being said. For a while, we stuck Bobblehead Jesus in the cupholder. It seemed the natural place for him. No better way to enjoy the bobblehead than to sit it somewhere where it will bobble most dramatically. But, then, eventually, you start to want your cupholder back. Especially on a road trip. That cupholder is prize real estate, especially around lunchtime. So, after a few days we took that Jesus out of his place of honor. And we stuck him in the storage bin in the center console. You know, under the elbow-rest. Alongside a bunch of spare change and some miscellaneous charging cords and who knows what else. We figured we’d just store him in there and pull him out whenever we needed him. Whenever we needed a laugh, or a bobble, or just a decorative touch. Bury him in that pile of junk, and we’ve got him right at our beck and call. Bury him in that pile of junk, and you know right where he is. As far as I know, he may still be there. There’s some comfort in that. No matter what happens, no matter how many years pass, I’m pretty sure I could go see John and open up his center console and find Jesus, right there waiting for me. It’s so convenient. Bury him right, and you’ve got him right where you want him.

But of course that’s not how this story goes. In fact it’s the whole point. The women come looking, come searching for Jesus right where they left him, but he’s not here. Instead, they have simply this cryptic promise: He is not here; he has been raised. Go, tell his disciples –– Go, tell Peter, that he is going ahead of you to Galilee. And you can just imagine their shock, their disappointment. But we had plans. But we knew how to do this part. It was pretty hard trying to serve the living Jesus. It was going to be so much easier serving a dead one. We knew how to do this. We had plans. We knew exactly where he was. But sometimes burial’s not the best strategy. Like in that parable of the one talent, sometimes burial doesn’t do any good at all. Sometimes God doesn’t want to wait for later. Sometimes Jesus has better places to be than underneath all the junk in your center console. Sometimes the Holy Spirit’s got to move no matter how we try to box it in. Mary, Mary Magdalene, Salome, you and plans for Jesus, but he is not here. He’s gone ahead of you. You had plans for the future, plans for his body, plans for telling his story, plans for going on with your lives after the time that has been. You had him right where you wanted him, all laid out for a future that seemed easy enough to predict. But Jesus isn’t waiting on that future. Jesus isn’t waiting for you. Jesus isn’t waiting for us at all. Jesus isn’t right here. Instead, Jesus is right now. We’re making plans for his body, but Jesus is out ahead of us, right now. On Easter Sunday, Jesus isn’t right here. On Easter Sunday, Jesus is right now.

It’s urgent. Mark’s account of the resurrection is urgent. And it doesn’t let you off the hook. In those other Gospels, Jesus shows up, eventually. In those other Gospels, this urgency resolves — to promises, and visions, and foretastes of the Kingdom. Breaking bread with Jesus by the lakeshore. Walking with him along the Emmaus Road. And undoubtedly these promises matter. It matters that this empty tomb proclaims the promise of God’s victory over death itself. It matters that Jesus along that Emmaus Road hints at the friend who walks with us all of our days. It matters that the communion by the lakeshore predicts the heavenly feast which beckons each of us when those days come to an end. But in Mark’s hands, Easter isn’t just a promise about some life to come. Easter is an urgent declaration about right now.

And just as Mark has asked time and time again, once again he puts to us the question, the challenge, the clarion call of this empty grave: Jesus has gone on ahead of you. So what will you do? Jesus isn’t here. Jesus is out there, doing the full work of the Gospel. Jesus isn’t here. Jesus is out there, praying with the sick, working for the poor, fighting for the forgotten. Jesus isn’t here. Jesus is out there, staying by bedsides, waiting in breadlines, dying on front lines, standing on picket lines, speaking for all whose voices have gone unheard. Jesus isn’t here. He’s gone on ahead of you. So what are we waiting for? So what will you do? Yes, the world needs promises. But even more than that it also needs Jesus. Right now. And Jesus is calling for you.

Deny it all you want to. Push it down all you want to. We’re really good at burial. But be warned: it’s not always the best strategy.

Of course Mbeki’s manifesto wasn’t the only document buried at Robben Island. If you take Sigwela at his word, it sounds like burial was the preferred storage method for any number of creative and intellectual pursuits. But none of them has been more consequential than the memoir and political rallying cry begun at the same time by the imprisoned radical named Nelson Mandela. Mandela had a long story to tell, the story of his own fight against Apartheid, yes, but also a raging defense of the rights of all people, the kind of rallying cry that South Africa desperately needed. He would write during the night, 10 or 15 pages, and then during the day pass it off to friends for editorial comments, and then, as his pages were completed, they would pass it again to the secret hero of Mandela’s imprisonment, an inmate named Mac Maharaj. Mac had a special talent. Mac could write in very very tiny letters. So every night, Mac would take completed pages from Mandela’s manuscript and copy them in the tiniest writing you could imagine, and by time they were done, they had two copies: one, the original, six hundred pages of Mandela’s story, ready to be buried in the ground alongside all the other masterworks produced at Robben Island, ready to be saved for some unknown day yet to come; and then the other, the copy, barely fifty pages, small enough, small enough to risk it, small enough to risk sending it into the urgent fray of a world that so desperately needed to hear its witness, small enough to risk going for it, right now.

You know where this is going. One day, Mac was sent home from Robben Island, but not before he’d had a chance to prepare. They sent home his books, too, even photo albums, and behind each of the photos he had spliced and cut those fifty pages, every tiny word of Mandela’s memoir, and in his freedom he shipped those pages out of the country, and those pages became Mandela’s landmark Long Walk to Freedom, the definitive story of the fight that brought down Apartheid. That one copy, sent into the urgent need of the world, that one copy joined the fight that tore down those dividing-walls once and for all. As for the other. They buried it, like they always would. In three big pots, in a vegetable garden. They buried it for later. They buried it so they would know right where to find it. And then, not more than a few months later, the guards decided to build a new wall. And they started to dig a new foundation.

And you know what they found.
And you know what they didn’t find.
Because Jesus had already gone on ahead.
Amen.