“The Clarity of Confusion”
By The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
Scripture Text: Mark 16.1-8
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “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. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
I shared a story with Ryon this week, a story from when I was a seminary intern. Although it was an event from ancient times, the story seemed to resonate with him.
The church where I interned had a ministry where once a month the deacons visited a nursing home on a Sunday afternoon and provided a worship service. Each month I was given the opportunity to preach as the other seminarian had no desire to offer sermons.
One month, after the service was over and the people at the nursing home had not fled in terror from my wobbly sermon, I was working the crowd. The dining room had many round tables and there was actually a good amount of people. I approached a woman in a wheelchair. She seemed sad.
Verna was indeed sad. She told me her tale of woe. She grew up in Queens; lived her whole life in Queens. When her husband retired, though, he wanted to fulfill his life-long dream and move to Florida. Although she had no desire but to stay in Queens, she followed him to Florida where she knew no one, had no family or friends. Shortly after arriving in Florida, Verna’s husband died.
Alone and grieving in a strange place she suffered a stroke. After the stroke she had complications and lost a leg for reasons I can’t quite remember. But I remember it was awful whatever it was. Then, she said, “I was alone in the hospital, month after month, recovering. No one came. My son never came to see me until one day he showed up and brought me here. But he didn’t take me home. He dropped me off here in Jersey. I have been here for a year and nothing.”
And then with vacant eyes she said, “I know God doesn’t love me because he won’t give me the strength to kill myself.”
I was having a hard time with Verna’s heartbreak, but the last part, that God didn’t love her because he will not give her the strength to kill herself that just undid me. What was I supposed to say? A part of me wanted to say, “you know I am the intern, right? This is way above my skill set.”
As I fumbled and struggled for something to say, a member of the church came up behind me and said, “we are all in the van ready to go.” Listening to Verna I hadn’t noticed the hall had cleared out. It was just the two of us. The best I could do was say, “I am sorry, Verna.” And we left.
Verna’s words and her heartbreak stayed with me. I knew I’d be back in a month. What was I supposed to say? For the next four weeks I tried to form a response. Part of me wanted to affirm her pain; another part of me wanted to assure her that God does love her. Yet, each time I tried to bring those two messages together, one or the other fell apart. Contradicting Verna about God seemed like adding another layer of pain.
The Sunday came for me to preach again. In all the years of sermon writing I still count this one as the worst. The homily was all over the place. It was in the clouds; it was in the mud. There were philosophical arguments and theological claims. As I preached this disaster, I only made eye contact with Verna. This sermon was for her. She was, in essence, my only audience even though the room was filled with many others.
About midway through my tortured text, a man came in from the back. He walked up to Verna and wheeled her out. Now my struggle became panic. I was only preaching to one person and that person just left. Quickly finishing up I sat down even more confused than when I began.
After the service I made my way to the table where Verna had been. Asking one of the people there where Verna went, a lovely woman smiled at me and said, “O that was Verna’s son. This is her big day. First visit in a year.”
Stunned, considering all the odds, all the possibilities, all the days and nights trying to figure out what to say to Verna, how to address her heartbreak, how to assure her of God’s love, all the guilt and energy that went in to the month of waiting to return just slipped away. In its place came a deep clarity about my confusion.
The clarity came with a deep voice within me. The voice said, you’re not in charge of this. You don’t have to be the one with the answers. In that moment I felt the powerful freedom offered by the clarity of confusion.
There are many instances of this in the gospels, the clarity of confusion. In fact, I believe the entire Gospel of Mark was written to make this point: you don’t have the answers, you barely have the question. Jesus is in charge of this; you are to follow him. Like the voice said on the mountain, “this is my son, listen to him.” Yet, of all the stories, teachings, descriptions that foster the clarity of confusion, none is greater than the ending of Mark, the resurrection scene. “And they fled in terror and said nothing to anyone.” That’s a pretty good image of confusion.
Please don’t half understand me and consider my admiration of confusion as rejection of truth. Don’t take my claims to be a kind of cynicism or skepticism. Jesus Christ is the Alpha and Omega, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the word, the risen Lord who will come again. I believe. But I don’t seek to extend my belief beyond the clarity of confusion. My understanding is ever foggy, ever a great distance from control. As the voice of the Holy Spirit made so clear in the nursing home, you are not in charge.
We are not in charge; we are not in control of life. And yet, it only takes a little power, a little clarity, a bit of truth to convince ourselves otherwise. We believe with certainty and this certainty so easily become a voice prone to arrogance and this arrogance just needs a little room to become belligerence and a pride filling us with authority and with authority orthodoxy becomes a law, a rule, a dividing line.
This is the path where the teachings of Paul somehow morph into signs picketing a church, signs saying, “God hates fags.” Somehow the Jesus who healed the outcast and welcomed the strangers and lepers, somehow with just a bit of certainty we change this Jesus into someone who shouts vile screeds about “wetbacks” and “welfare queens” and “those people.”
Bill Maher, the cable talk show host and despiser of all religions, Bill Maher is not usually someone to quote in a sermon, positively that is. But he should be when he spoke to the power that robs us of freedom, the freedom we gain in the clarity of confusion. He said, the moral high ground of the liberal left is developing into a new orthodoxy, a litmus test, of who is good and bad.
He is referring to what I like to call the litany of shame. The litany of shame is heard when we tell people again and again, they are bigots and xenophobes, homophobes, and racists and sexist, and ageist and on and on the litany goes. Maher’s point is that this is false confidence, an arrogance born of a little power, the power we feel in being more right than others.
Mark’s story of the resurrection could just be a literary device. The cliff hanger ending where the audience begs to know what happens next. Maybe. But I don’t believe this is a good exegesis. The resurrection scene of Mark is not meant to take us forward; it is meant to take us back. Hence the angel says, “Go to Galilee”; go back home. Return to the simplicity and humility of the villages of the poor. Live the life of Jesus.
I am not sure if the Apostle Paul conveyed this message. He didn’t talk about the life of Jesus. He spoke of the death and resurrection of Jesus. He offered his humility, but he also offered great confidence and assurance. “We are more than conquerors,” he wrote. The gospel was his only boast, but it was a boast. Jesus never speaks the word “boast” in the gospels.
Mostly, though, the Gospel of Mark doesn’t present the disciples as people with the answers, let alone something to boast. They do though bluster. Especially Peter. Peter is prone to speeches of great certainty and each time it really goes sideways. Notice the direction of the angel. Go tell his disciples and Peter. Hard not to read that line as anything else than a demotion, a dig, a warning that Peter had stumbled over his sense of certainty, “although, all betray you, I will not.” Yah, that didn’t quite work out. “I don’t know the man,” he told the servant girl.
At this point the sermon has a simple message: be humble; don’t be arrogant. Not a bad message. We all need to remember to be humble. We all need to watch against the temptation of power, that little bit of certainty become a club to beat the wrong people down. I am always amazed at how little certainty it takes to give rise to belligerence. But I was hoping for more than that today. You see, I believe there is clarity in confusion. There is a strength in trusting we don’t have the answers.
I wish I could tell you that the clarity of confusion I felt in the nursing home that day after discovering God was in control of life and I was a bit further down in the “org” chart, I wish I could tell you that I was set free from arrogance or delusion or the temptation of orthodoxy, where I have the answers and you don’t. I wish in that moment I found the tree of freedom with all its fruit. But the truth is it was more a seed cast than a fruitful tree found. There were many “miles to go and promises to keep.”
Each moment of change, each time I found freedom it was in some place like the nursing home, with someone like Verna. The change I felt was not born of people shouting at me that I was wrong; the laying aside of sin’s shackles was not the bitter reproach of the zealot. The change came in community; it came in friendship; it came at home. Go to Galilee. Go home.
For the apostle Paul the resurrection of Jesus was a matter of heaven. We are citizens of heaven he declared. Nothing wrong with that. But this is not the picture Mark gives to finish his gospel. There is resurrection for sure. He is risen! He is risen, indeed! But the resurrection is about the earth.
Galilee is not a cosmic place. Jerusalem is. Some legends hold that the temple mount is the center of the universe, the place of the Garden of Eden, the door to heaven. No one says that about Capernaum or Cana or Nazareth. Those were small villages where the poor lived out hard lives in green valleys.
The resurrection for Mark is about the earth. It’s about Metuchen. It’s about Main Street and the train station; it’s even about diners and barbershops and parks.
To see the resurrection here you need to trust the clarity of confusion. How is it that this is the place where the kingdom of God comes to earth? How is it that the word becomes flesh here and dwells among us? How is that? Jesus said such is for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. I would say, such is for those whose eyes and ears trust the clarity of confusion.
Here we can find we don’t have the answers; we barely have the questions. Here we can trust the honesty that frees us: we follow Jesus. Here we baptize our babies and bury our loved ones. Here we sing the “Hallelujah” and here we remember what the angel said, “Go to Galilee.” Go home. You’ll find him there. Amen.
- Romans 6:1 - 11
- Mark 16:1 - 8