The Inconceivable Surprise of Living
April 2, 2024

The Inconceivable Surprise of Living


Scripture: Mark 16:1-8

I recently heard a quote from the Jewish scholar and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel. It’s part of a longer essay, but this is the snippet that I heard. He wrote, “Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live.” And the phrase that I really love is what I’ve titled this sermon: The inconceivable surprise of living. 

I don’t think there’s been any Easter in my entire ministry when I’ve felt totally comfortable with a 100% joy-filled, no-trace-of-a-shadow resurrection message. Don’t get me wrong, this day is a celebration. It is a day full of joy - especially as we celebrate together in community. And, there has never been an Easter that hasn’t taken place in this world full of mess and brokenness and pain. There is always a little part of me - or sometimes a big part of me - that feels callous shouting for joy when people (maybe you!) are suffering or dying.  

And yet, in a world that is suffering, where it is so easy to see death, in that context, to live - and to be able to pray and praise - is indeed an inconceivable surprise. We are alive! Christ is alive! Perhaps it is an act of hope and resilience to to proclaim it.

The way the two realities: pain, fear and death are juxtaposed against the sure knowledge of a living Jesus Christ are why I kind of love Mark’s account of the resurrection. The good surprise of hearing Jesus is alive mashed up against the jarring and abrupt surprise of the women running off in fear! I kinda like it!

And it’s weird because I LOVE a happy ending. I should be compelled by the other Gospel stories (and maybe I will be when we read those - the book I’m reading is always my favorite). Because in those accounts Jesus shows up for his friends - Thomas gets to touch him. Mary meets him in the garden. The disciples share stories on the Emmaus Road. Peter eats with him on the beach. 

But this here - the shock and surprise and terror of Salome and the Marys - that feels more true to how I experience the resurrection. Like right now in my life. Like the women, I have only the story of this Gospel to go on. Jesus hasn’t appeared to me. It’s bananas to think about a beloved friend coming back from the dead.

Mark does a good job, I think, of really dwelling with the women’s experience. When I read it I’m there with them. The men have defected. They’re long gone. The women are on their own. It’s early but they have found the supplies they need. And because of the sabbath they haven’t been able to anoint and care for Jesus' body the way they would like to. They’re planning the logistics. They know they’ll have to figure out how to move the stone (And it was a very large stone! Love this detail.) They don’t have the men around to help with that.

Mark stays in their very human perspective when he describes the one who meets them as simply a young man. To us, the reader, he gives clues that it’s an angel: dazzling white clothes, (like those of Jesus transfigured) the words of so many heavenly messengers, “Don’t be afraid.” Seemingly unknowable information and instructions apparently from Jesus himself. 

But no Jesus. So yeah, in spite of the young man’s assurance not to be alarmed, they are alarmed. They are surprised. Their rabbi/friend’s body is missing. The man is a stranger with unbelievable news. And it is inconceivable. An inconceivable surprise. It is indeed terrifying and they are full of dread.

When Heschel wrote his essay about prayer and the inconceivable surprise of living it was 1945. I found it hard to comprehend how he could write about the mystery and beauty of nature in this same essay, when he had only recent escaped the horrors of Europe at war, had family members imprisoned, siblings in Nazi concentration camps. I suppose it does indeed feel an inconceivable surprise to be alive for Heschel.

One of the Palestinian accounts I follow on Instagram is Bisan Owda - @wizard_bisan1 on IG - who is a 20-something journalist reporting almost daily from her experience in Gaza. In almost every post she begins, “Hi, this is Bisan from Gaza. I’m still alive.” Often she is weary. Sometimes she is sad. Sometimes angry. Every once in a while (though less and less frequently in recent days) she turns her camera to a moment of joy - children singing or artists who continue to make art, resilience in the face of overwhelming devastation. To be able to say, “I’m still alive” in some ways, because there’s never any assurance that it will be so, it is always a surprise.

In Mark’s gospel, his ending is so abrupt, so surprising and fearful that later writers felt compelled to add endings. I get it. As I’ve said: love a happy ending. I love an epilogue, all the loose ends tied up. In fact I have a brain that doesn’t easily grasp even the possibility of a tragic ending.

In couple of classic examples of classic novels (spoiler alert) 1984 and The Grapes of Wrath. These are both novels where I was almost finished with the book, in each case thinking, when is this going to turn around? The author sure is waiting a long time to pull things together. Before I had the realization: Ooooh, I see. It’s just going to be bad. It just ends bad!

The Gospel of Mark ends bad. Or at least it ends ambiguously. So much so that later authors felt compelled to write some epilogues that do that thing I like - they tie up the loose ends. They make it clear that everything does indeed work out for the best. In fact you can choose your own adventure: do you want the shorter ending or the longer ending of Mark. Both of them summarize elements of the other Gospels in which Jesus did appear to this community and whew! it’s all okay!

But in Mark’s case, unlike in 1984 or The Grapes of Wrath - the details of which I frankly can’t even really remember - it’s not tragedy for its own sake, or even to make a comment on politics or class or whatever (which I think Orwell and Steinbeck were both doing?) Mark is writing his ending as an invitation to the listening/reading audience.

Mark begins his gospel with the words, “This is the beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ” and now that it’s begun, he’s inviting his readers - including us - to tell the ending. Not just to tell but to live. It’s an invitation to take the angel’s words and to decide what we would have done in that situation and what we will do now?

And the abruptness leads to a feeling of urgency: Will you take the journey to Galilee? Will you bring the message to the disciples? Will you tell Peter that Jesus is alive and still loves him? Will you go meet Jesus?

I’m not well versed in the work of Abraham Heschel, whose quote about the surprise of living I started with in that essay about prayer. So I know that prayer and gratitude was one way he responded to the surprise of living. But I also know that Heschel was a strong advocate and ally in the Black struggle for civil rights during the 50s and 60s. He was a friend and supporter of Dr King and I’m sure some of you can picture some of the iconic images of King on the Edward Pettus Bridge, Heschel is right there with him. (below)

It seems to me that our response to the resurrection, to the invitation of the inconceivable surprise of a living Christ, of ourselves being alive in the world God created, once we’ve fled past the fear, is to do as Heschel did. Discover the places where fear, death, violence and oppression still have a hold and protest. Prophesy. Call for change and be changed.

At the end of the story the reader is the only one who’s left. We are the ones who are left! The men ditched before the crucifixion, the tomb is empty, the women flee and here we are with the beginning of the story. It is up to us. What will you do with this inconceivable surprise?

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