Let us pray:  Good and gracious God:  on this miraculous morning, when we are reminded most clearly of your promise that life will always triumph over death, may we not forget those for whom death is such a present threat this day:  people of Palestine and Israel, Ukraine and Haiti, immigrants and refugees seeking a home, victims of tornados and fallen bridges, victims of violence and hunger in the streets of our city and illness, grief, and loss in its homes.  How can the story of Christ give hope to them, and to us?  How we may we be instruments of your peace?  How may we sow love, as Jesus calls us to do?  This is the task of today, and it is a joyous one, for what higher calling is there than to be people of hope?  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

Let’s begin with something light, something silly, but something that caught my attention this week and through it, God showed me what to tell you about this morning.  I don’t usually pay much attention to my fortune cookie, but here’s what happened early this week:  I was finishing lunch at a Chinese restaurant, when the server handed to me a fortune cookie that I noticed was broken.  I jokingly asked her if that was bad luck, and she said, “oh of course not, but I should give you another,” which she did.  Then, the moment I stepped out the door a gust of wind blew the second one right out of my hand and it fell the ground, so there I was with not one, but two broken fortune cookies.  I went to the car and opened the first one, because I’m not the kind of guy who is going to avoid a broken cookie, and this was another first:  the fortune read:  “Come back later; I am sleeping.”  Impatiently, I opened the second wrapper, and finally read my intended message: “Courage is not the absence of fear but the will to confront it.”  Well by now I was paying attention, and it hit me:  this is the message of Easter.  Like most fortune cookies, the message was not a new or brilliant idea, but it’s one of those worth being reminded of and thinking about.  The kind of hope Jesus is trying to teach us comes not from a world without fear, but from the courage to face it.  And with that in mind, I invite you to come with me into today’s familiar story.

Of course, it was not courage, but fear that put Jesus to death on Good Friday—the fears that possessed everyone else in the story.  Some religious authorities were afraid of how Jesus was revealing their hypocrisy.  The Roman authorities feared the growing popularity of this rebel teacher who was gaining such a following.  And when these powerful people conspired to put Jesus to death, common folks feared what would happen if they did not go along, so they became a mob.  Even Jesus’ own disciples, who had witnessed his way of peace and love, caved under the pressure of fear, and abandoned him.

The same is true in the world we inhabit today, that it is too often fear that is leading us.  World leaders, fearing the loss of power, strike first against their political foes, and send their minions and armies in hope that others will fear them.  In our own homes and lives, fear keeps us trapped in broken relationships, work that brings us misery, and neighborhoods where we fear people who are not like us.

But…in our time, just as it was in Jesus’ time, there is another way.  Jesus has shown it to us in his teaching and his living, and on Easter morning, we see that there were some people of courage who came after him, and who sought to follow him into a life of love.

          Early on Easter morning while it was still dark, women who had been followers of Jesus followed him still.  They head for the tomb where Jesus had been buried to anoint his body according to their tradition.  John’s version, which we read this morning, tells us it was Mary Magdalene.  Mark’s version, which we believe to be the oldest, claims that she was joined by Mary the mother of James, and Salome.  This morning we’ll spend a little time in both versions—why read just one account of a great story when you can read two? 

          John’s telling of the story is the most popular and most often heard on Easter morning—and for many good reasons—it’s got plenty of great dramatic turns and twists to stop and to wonder about.  In this version Mary Magdalene heads for the tomb on her own.  It was risky enough in ancient Jerusalem for a single woman to be on the road by herself, but even more than that, Mary is already facing down fear knowing that there are likely soldiers guarding the tomb.  As she approaches at a distance, she sees that the stone has been rolled away, so in a wise move (for courage need not be stupidity) she turns back and runs to tell the other disciples.  Peter and another disciple race to the tomb, where they find the tomb empty and the linen burial wrappings left behind.  Without much further comment, they return to their home, one must imagine quite confused by the whole thing.  What else were they going to do?

          But the story continues that Mary remains there, weeping outside the tomb, surely afraid, but still there, and now the magic begins to happen.  Finally peering cautiously into the tomb, it is Mary who discovers the angels, who announce to her that he has been raised.  Emerging from the tomb, surely in total confusion, Mary stumbles into Jesus himself, at first mistaking him to be the gardener.  But when Jesus calls her by name, she knows it is him.  Racing home, it is Mary, the one who rose early in the morning with fear, but also with courage, it is Mary who is the first to go find the others and tell them:  “I have seen the Lord!”  And the rest, as they say, is history.

Now I want to invite you to step with me into Mark’s version of the story which is less well-known, and much shorter, but which I’ve always liked the most—especially when it comes to talking about courage.

In this story, Mary Magdalene is joined by two others, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, head for the tomb on Easter morning.  The stone is rolled away, but they go right in, and a young man (Mark doesn’t say angel) is waiting there, who matter-of-factly tells them this: “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.”  He then tells them to go and share the news with the disciples that Jesus has been raised.  And just as abruptly as the rest of Mark’s account, the story ends this way:  “So [the women] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  The End.  Not just fear, but terror seized them.  And they told no one; for they were afraid.  That is how Mark’s Gospel ends.   It is so troubling an ending that if you look in your Bible, you will find additional, optional endings to the story, endings that scholars know to have been found only in later manuscripts—because even the earliest Bible translators could not stand to end the story with fear. 

But here’s the thing:  Mark is a great storyteller, and he knew exactly what he was doing.  Mark’s Gospel, even though it’s the oldest, wasn’t written until 25 years after Jesus’ death.  So if the women who went to the tomb really told no one, how’d we all find out?  For sure, the women left the tomb afraid, and their fear was real, but in the end the news was so good that courage won out—they must have told someone!  These women were not living in a world that had nothing to fear; but for sure, they were people who knew a thing or two about courage.

Our situation is not so different from those first followers of Jesus.  It’s easy, if a bit lazy, to tell ourselves that if we were one of the first followers of Jesus, if we were in those stories so long ago, that it would be easier to believe it all, and easy to be fearless and full of hope.  But that’s not at all what the stories say.  The stories admit openly that the women left the tomb afraid.  We get it that way in both John’s telling of the story, and in Mark’s.  Luke tells us that those who met Jesus were terrified and wondered if they had encountered a ghost (24:37) and Matthew says plainly that some who met the risen Christ “worshipped him, but some doubted…” (28:17).  It seems clear enough that even for those who were there, what happened was not only mysterious, but frightening.  Believing in the hope-filled story, believing that life can triumph over death has always been a thing that takes courage.

Today, just as it was then, there is plenty in the world that can cause us to fear.  Geopolitical circumstances, divisive culture wars, tough relationships with people you love…I don’t have to spell them all out for you, you know very well that there are things to be feared.  But even though fear has always been with us, so too has courage, and like so many stories of Jesus, the story of Easter inspires us to live courageously, refusing to be overcome by fear.

Cole Arthur Riley is a remarkable young author who has found her voice out of a journey full of challenge and courage.  Now a prolific writer, she hardly spoke for the first decade of her life, family and friends wondering what exactly was the cause of her silence; with her father’s help, it was writing that began to save her.  In young adulthood she was struck by a mysterious physical ailment that almost took her life and caused her tremendous despair.  But from a place of suspicion and doubt, a bit at a time she began to find herself at home in the story of Christ, and started to write about it.  Her latest book, Black Liturgies, is a collection of prayers and poems that challenge the church to embrace joy by being honest about things in life that are hard.  These words are from her prayer for Easter, will you pray them with me?:

“God who rose, Resurrect us.  We’ve belonged to communities, workplaces, and spiritual spaces that have demanded our death far more than they ever advocated for our life…   Let joy find us today…  May joy find us.  Not a joy absent of story or sorrow, but a joy whose allegiance is to memory.  A joy that is not quick to forget the agony of Good Friday or dismiss the doubt of Silent Saturday.  May we remember and rise to meet hope nonetheless, knowing your liberation is whispering up at us from its empty grave…”  (Riley, Black Liturgies, 263)

The grave is empty.  Courageous women have faced down fear and shared the story for us to hear it.  May we now be led to tell others in our words and in our living that life will have the last word.  Christ is Risen.  Christ is Risen indeed.  Amen.