What Spices Do You Bring to the Tomb?

Introduction to Easter sermon on Mark 16: 1-8

A year ago we were just a few weeks into the pandemic, and a small group of us at church had gathered on Zoom, a brand new technology we were experimenting with, and I asked people to share what was helping them to maintain their sense of equilibrium and hope in the face of all the unknowns. One woman in our group was in her mid-90s, and I wasn’t sure she was able to even see us on the call, for her vision was extremely poor and technology even more difficult to navigate. But her voice and face were always filled with the light of generosity and belief in the people around her.

     She participated in just about all the new opportunities I was offering in the church, and would refer in our conversations, now and then, to the struggles and inevitable heartbreaks involved in raising 7 children and the surprising ways that God had supported her through many a shipwreck over the years. In response to my question of what was helping her cope with the pandemic she only had one line to offer, but it stopped the conversation and placed everyone’s feet on holy ground. This is what she said with a voice filled with Love:

“Why should we fear the shipwreck, if God is the sea?”

The dear, caring women in our scripture today had just experienced something mental health caregivers call “cognitive dissonance.” The body of a person they had seen murdered was now supposedly alive once again. This is not the way of the world as they knew it. And they were afraid. We would ALL be afraid and unable (at least for a time) to go and share a powerfully new understanding of the world, as the angel instructed them.

     The stone that covered the entrance to the tomb was the topic of their conversation as they approached, wondering and perhaps worrying that they would be unable to move the heavy limestone wheel. We are never told how the stone WAS moved, it just says in verse 4: “But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away.” The limestone likely weighed hundreds and hundreds of pounds, and, for that reason may have made others scoff at their idea of returning to tend to their loss. Had they not had the courage and fortitude to return to their place of pain with the spices they could offer, they would never have had the frightening experience of cognitive dissonance, but, they also wouldn’t have been able to meet an angel either.

Being willing to struggle with deep questions in their lives, the women found the way forward without having to do all the work themselves, and more importantly, they eventually experienced the wonder of transformation. In my mind, this willingness to remain engaged in the process of healing their pain, and the pain of others, is what helped move the stone. Allowed the angel to appear to them. And eventually helped them share the good news of resurrection with others—resurrection, which is part of the pattern of Christ-ness woven into all of creation.

Why should we fear the shipwreck, if God is the sea?

I recently heard the story* of a couple whose daughters were both killed in a car accident involving a driver who was under the influence of alcohol when it happened. “When Dan and Lynn Wagner received a letter from the parole officer letting them know that Lisa– the woman who had killed their two daughters in a car accident– was being released from prison, they knew that in order to continue healing they had to set up a meeting with her on their terms. Dan says their plan was to release the relationship and close the final chapter in their story: We called the parole officer and asked if he could set up a meeting between Lisa and us. We explained that we had never gone to court because she had pled guilty, and therefore we had never actually met her.

     The parole officer said it was an unusual request, and that meeting with us was against Lisa’s conditions of parole. His superiors, however, approved it and we set a date. We really didn’t discuss what we were going to say to her. We just wanted to get this meeting over with and get that last door closed.

We knew from the moment she was sentenced to prison that the day would eventually come when we’d meet her, and we wanted that first meeting to be in a controlled environment like this, not in the checkout line at some grocery store.

     When we walked into the meeting room and laid our eyes on Lisa for the first time, we both hugged her. I don’t know why, but it suddenly seemed as if we had all been through this war together. When I hugged her, I started crying and couldn’t stop and couldn’t let go. In that hug and in my heart I felt a sense of relief. After seven years, I was finally meeting the woman who had killed my daughters. But I felt no anger, no hatred—just relief. So I cried.

     We eventually sat down around a large table. Lisa spoke about her twelve-step recovery process and that step nine, Making Amends, would be for her a “living amends.” Lynn asked her to clarify what she meant by that. Lisa said she wanted to share her experience with others in hopes she could prevent others from taking a life as she had taken the lives of Mandie and Carrie.

     We thanked her for pleading guilty and keeping us out of the court proceedings. She kept saying, “I was guilty.” Then the parole office said he had never seen anything like this and perhaps we are all serving a God of reconciliation. We walked into that building in fear, thinking we were finally going to have an end. But it turned out to be a new beginning. Lynn and Lisa have since been invited to speak together, and they go to jails and churches and universities and share our story. It’s funny how it’s our story now. And our story has touched a lot of lives. It’s about tragedy, yes, but it’s also about forgiveness and something someone told me in the early days after the accident: God does not waste his children’s pain.”

     This grieving couple’s willingness to lean into the deep questions of life created by loss is what, in my mind, helped move the stone that was keeping out Light and Life. In the face of the violent deaths in their own lives, they brought their own unique spices to the tomb of their daughters, and were eventually able share the good news of resurrection. They found a way forward without having to do all the work themselves.

Why should we fear the shipwreck, if God is the sea?

     If the idea of us assisting God in the beauty of resurrection in the world surprises you, I would take us back for a moment to the story of Lazarus in John chapter 11. Jesus’ friend Lazarus had been dead in a similar stone tomb for 4 days when Jesus arrived in Bethany. Jesus says to the ones who were willing to remain engaged in the process of grief and loss to “move the stone away!…unbind him, and let him go free!” This narrative in John is the last dramatic “sign,” one of many in the gospel of John, just before Jesus’ own journey toward death begins.

     What is the point of this lesson Jesus gives to us in raising Lazarus from the dead? Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, says this: “An important clue is given right before the action, when the disciples try to discourage Jesus from going back to Judea where he is in danger. Jesus says calmly, ‘Are there not 12 hours in the day? When a person can walk without stumbling? When he sees the world bathed in light.’ Jesus refuses to fear darkness and death…and reminds his friends that those who draw upon the twelve hours, who see the world bathed in light now, have begun to see the pattern of transformation and resurrection woven into all of creation. Yes, the other hours of darkness will come, a metaphor for death, but now we know that it will not last. It is only a part, but not the whole of life—just as the day itself is 12 hours and night is the other twelves, two sides of the one mystery of Life. Jesus’ job is simply to ‘wake’ us up to this, as he did Lazarus and the onlookers. Once you are awake to the universal truth, then…death [in whatever form] is no enemy to be feared.”**

Why should we fear the shipwreck, if God is the sea?

     When the good Fridays of our lives occur, this is where the meaning of the Cross becomes invaluable to us as followers of Christ. Because Jesus, our mentor and guide, was willing and able to actively remain in the tension of life’s unanswered questions, engaging the seemingly opposing forces of good and evil, we can do the same. In my mind, Jesus’ cross beams are held together as the point of transformation point between earth and heaven, between our small selves and our Christ selves, between what seems inevitable in our lives and what isn’t yet even imaginable. In the words of Rohr again: “Good Friday is about the power of the Cross to serve as a location for humanity to place its unresolvable pain from the situations of life.”

     Hanging our broken hearts, our grievances about government or policy-makers, our incessant fears, compulsions, and wounds of a lifetime there at the pivot point of hope, helps us to hold still long enough in the crazy cognitive dissonance, to let the hands of Love begin to shape and mold us into our deeper truer selves in Christ, capable of embracing life’s greater complexities and contradictions.  As Rainer Maria Rilke says, “What is required of us is that we love the difficult and learn to deal with it.  In the difficult are the friendly forces, the hands that work on us.”

Placing our yet-unanswered prayers, our deepest concerns, and our death-dealing doubts there on the cross, keeps us moist and malleable in the hands of the wise and merciful Potter until resurrection becomes glimpse-able. Like the women who arrived at the tomb, willing to engage the process of grief rather than remaining tight and closed in denial or anger, we help God to roll away stones of all kinds for people and situations in the world today by anointing them with the spices of Compassion and Justice—the spices at the core of God’s essence which make resurrection possible, in all its forms.

     What are the spices God has given you to bring to the tomb in this season of your life? What forms of Compassion and Justice are waiting in your cupboard to be used on behalf of some stone-rolling in the world for yourself or others, who are shut off from the Light and Life God desires for all of us and each of us?

     In closing, let me share with you one last story:

     “My friend isn’t back from the battlefield, sir. Request permission to go out and get him.” “Permission refused,” said the officer. “I don’t want you to risk your life for a man who is probably dead.” The soldier went, all the same, and, an hour later, came back mortally wounded, carrying the corpse of his friend. The officer was furious. “I told you he was dead. Now I’ve lost both of you. Tell me, was it worth going out there to bring in a corpse?” The dying man replied, “Oh, it was sir. When I got to him, he was still alive. And he said to me, “Jack, I was sure you’d come.”***

     Why should we fear the shipwreck, if God is the sea?

*The Book of Forgiving: The 4-fold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Andrea Tutu.

**Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent by Richard Rohr

***Taking Flight: A Book of Story Meditations by Anthony de Mello

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