Christ Lutheran Church Upper Darby

April 5, 2020 Worship Sermon - Easter Sunday "The Fragrance of Resurrection"

Delivered by Rev. Stephen Keiser

 Scripture: Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Mark 16:1-8

​When I was a young adult, I attended University Lutheran Church in West Philadelphia.  At that time, Unilu, as we called it, was somewhat high church.  In every worship service, there would be processions with the cross and candles.  The pastor would chant many of the prayers.  And on festivals, like Christmas and Easter, there would be incense.  I remember one Easter, a student at Penn named Scott was the thurifer.  The thurifer is the person who carries the container of incense and waves it over the altar or over the congregation as a way of blessing the gathering with the sweet fragrance of God’s presence.  Scott was, perhaps, a bit overly enthusiastic in his role as thurifer that Easter morning.  As the organist was playing the prelude, he loaded a lot of incense into the thurible, the silver container that held the charcoal and incense.  Then, when the congregation stood up to sing the opening hymn, “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today,” Scott led the procession into the sanctuary.  Since it was Easter, the church was packed and there were lots of people in the choir.  In addition to the organ, there were trumpets and kettle drums, so the volume of the music made the stained-glass windows rattle. It was so thrilling that even the most jaded skeptic would want to believe that the resurrection must be true.  Scott led the procession around the perimeter of the sanctuary waving the thurible back and forth and then, when he started up the center aisle, he began to do loop the loops with the thurible.  Nobody had ever tried this before and it was really spectacular.  With each spin, wafts of incense came pouring out of the thurible.  Once he got to the altar, he continued to stand in front of the congregation, spinning the thurible around and around while we sang all four verses of the Easter hymn.  I was the usher that Sunday, so I stood in the back and watched as the smoke of incense filled the sanctuary.  The smoke was so thick, I could barely see the altar.  Now I like incense, but my feelings about it changed that morning, because by the end of the opening hymn, quite a few worshippers were fleeing the sanctuary with their hands over their necks, choking and coughing, tears streaming down their faces.  It wasn’t quite the Easter that Scott had been preparing for. 

The memory of those worshippers fleeing the sanctuary on that Easter morning comes to mind as I read the Gospel of Mark’s version of the resurrection story.  In Mark’s Gospel, the women come to the tomb prepared with their own version of incense.  They come to the tomb prepared to overcome the stench of death with the sweet-smelling fragrance of the spices they brought to anoint Jesus’ body.  Their plans are interrupted though, as they discover the tomb is empty and this strange messenger tells them that Jesus has been raised from death.  The women flee the tomb, so choked with terror that they are unable to speak a word about what they saw.  It wasn’t quite the Easter they had been preparing for.

Once every three years, we hear Mark’s version of the resurrection story, and every time we read it I kind of feel like I ought to offer an apology.  We gather on Easter, whether in-person or online, because we want to hear some good news; and instead Mark offers us this quirky story about women fleeing the tomb in terror.  It’s not the story most of us had been preparing for.

Mark’s resurrection account may not be quite what we had been preparing for, but it contains a profound truth none-the-less.  New Testament scholar, Esau McCaulley, puts it this way: “Mark’s ending points to a truth that often gets lost in the celebration: Easter is a frightening prospect. For the women, the only thing more terrifying than a world with Jesus dead was one in which he was alive.”

McCaulley goes on to explain that Easter is frightening because it confronts us with the unsettling presence of a God who is able to bring life out of death.  And we’re not talking about zombies or the walking dead.  Remember, when the Bible talks about death, it’s not talking primarily about the cessation of a heartbeat.  In the Bible, death manifests itself in the destruction of relationships.  Death manifests itself in slavery and injustice and violence, in the breakdown of society, in despair and meaninglessness.  Easter is frightening because it confronts us with the unsettling presence of a God who refuses to allow death to have the final word.  And if death doesn’t have the final word, we are forced to live in hope.

This year, it has been especially easy to recognize the power of death.  Between the pandemic, the mass shootings, the racially inspired violence, and the social isolation, we are all too well prepared to face death.  Like the women at the tomb, we expect to encounter it and we will try our best to mask its stench with our platitudes and justifications.  But God says no to our resignation.  God says no to our acceptance of death and God says yes to life.  God turns us around and sends us back to Galilee with the promise that there we will meet the Lord of life, the living savior.

Galilee is where Jesus conducted almost his entire ministry.  Galilee is where Jesus healed the sick and fed the five thousand and cast out demons.  In other words, Galilee is where Jesus gave life to those who were perishing.  Go to Galilee, the young man at the tomb tells the disciples, and continue doing the things that Jesus taught you do.  Heal the sick; cleanse the leper; give food to the hungry; and you will see the risen Christ there, as you continue his ministry.

It may seem strange to end the Gospel with the women fleeing in terror from the tomb. But truth be told, this is not the end of the Gospel.  It may be the end of the book we call the Gospel of Mark, but it is not the end of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  As a matter of fact, the book we call the Gospel of Mark is only the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ continues as the disciples continue to demonstrate the power of God to bring life out of death.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ continues to this very day. 

Many of you have helped me to see the continuing Gospel of Jesus Christ as the life-giving power of God is demonstrated in your own lives and in this community.  In the meals that you help distribute on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, the risen Christ continues the miracle of feeding the five thousand.  In your recovery from addiction, I see the risen Christ continuing to liberate from bondage.  In the love that you share with those who are going through difficult times, I see the risen Christ continuing his ministry of compassion.

Go to that little neighborhood of Galilee that we call Upper Darby, and you will see the risen Christ there.

Christ Lutheran Community Church