Sunday, April 08, 2007

Easter Sermon: Unfinished Symphony

1 Peter 1: 3-9
Mark 16: 1-8

That’s all we get from the first Gospel written. If you were a Christian in the first century before Matthew or Luke or John wrote their versions of the story, that was the ending you had to build your faith on. “The women ran out of the tomb and they told no one, for they were afraid.” The Greeks would have actually read the last verse as grammatically unsatisfying as well. “To no one anything they said; afraid they were for…”
You will see more if you look at the end of Mark now, but you will also most likely see a bunch of brackets and down at the bottom, “earliest manuscripts end at 16:8.” That means that in the earliest written records we have of Mark, this is the ending. There is nothing more about handling poison or snakes and there is nothing more about spreading the message far and wide. What we are left with in the earliest recordings of Mark is simply “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
In his commentary on the Gospel of Mark, the late Donald Juel tells the story of one of his students who had memorized the whole of Mark in order to do a dramatic, Broadway style reading before a live audience. After careful study, the student had decided to go with the scholarly consensus regarding the ending. At his first performance, however, after he spoke that ambiguous last verse, he stood there awkwardly, shifting from one foot to the other, the audience waiting for more, waiting for closure, waiting for the proper ending. Finally, after several anxious seconds, he said, “Amen!” and made his exit. The relieved audience applauded loudly and appreciatively.
Upon reflection though, the student realized that by providing the audience a satisfying conclusion, his “Amen” had actually betrayed the dramatic intention of the text. So at the next performance, when he reached the final verse he simply paused for a half beat and left the stage in silence. “The discomfort and uncertainty within the audience were obvious,” said Juel, “and as the people exited…the buzz of conversation was dominated by the experience of the non-ending.”
Ever read a story or watch a movie that you just didn’t want to end? It might have been so beautiful, so thrilling, so involving that you felt a part of you died when you came to the conclusion. You found yourself paging back a few chapters to try and re-create that last hour or so that you were so enthralled by the story.
Or perhaps you’ve sat in a movie theater as the crowd files out hoping that the filmmakers will have rewarded you for sitting to the very end of the credits with one of those clever little “secret endings” that only the die-hards know about.
I am reminded of going to see the last installment of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy with Lara at this huge theater in Hollywood called the Orpheum. As the movie neared its ending, I started feeling like I was watching a roommate pack up his things to move to the other side of the planet. I knew I would never again see a Lord of the Rings movie for the “first time” ever again. I sat in desperation through the entire credits, hoping for something more, some last “farewell.”
Our gospel writer, Mark, understands this feeling I believe, because he simply ends the Gospel without really ending it. Some mysterious guy in a tomb saying Jesus isn’t there? Women running out and telling no one, despite the promise of this mysterious man that Jesus would meet them in Galilee?
That is so unsatisfying! We want some face time with the newly risen Jesus, like in John…….when Mary goes to the tomb and Jesus appears to her when who she had mistaken to be the caretaker whispers her name—she recognizes his voice, sees him face to face, then goes to tell the others, dutifully—not running away scared.
Mark just gives us an empty tomb and an enigmatic promise met with….fear and fleeing. Why? The fact that we may find this unsatisfying was not lost on later leaders of the church, who added to Mark’s ending some semblance of a resolution. We have two such endings, in fact—one brief and poignant, one full of reprimands and high expectations.
Even though I want more, like I want to keep reading those beautiful stories or like I stay in the theater till the little symbols of the studios come up—hoping for something more to the movie—even though I want more from Mark, I’m also very attracted to his original ending to the story. I think I like it because it compels me. It is like one of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books that I recently pulled out of storage at my parents house and had a ball looking through. “If you run to Galilee to meet Jesus, turn to page 113,” or “If you run out with the women and “tell no one” turn to page 44.
This is the only occasion in Mark when the disciples (yes, the women are disciples too, of course) have been commanded to let the cat out of the bag, and they instead “tell no one.” In every other instance, Jesus has commanded the disciples to “tell no one of this” and they have promptly spilled the beans. Here’s the biggest event yet, and they’re given the green light to spread the word and instead they “say nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Clearly the later editors of the book were bugged by this incoherent ending because they add that “well, actually they did tell someone.”
Clearly they had told, because if they hadn’t, Mark wouldn’t be telling this story to anyone in the first place. The empty tomb would have eventually been filled by someone else’s body, the stone closed, and the movement begun by Jesus would have fizzled out and the only person to know the name of Jesus would be some ancient Judaism scholar working on his PH.D and writing a thesis on some obscure references to a man by the name of Yeshua who was crucified by the Romans for probably starting an insurrection.
Mark ends his gospel with a failed commandment because it is compelling. We want to tell the story to make up for the characters in the story who fail to do so. That’s exactly the kind of response that Mark is hoping for—the resurrection is in our hands. If we don’t share it, the Message will die out and be forgotten.
A pastor named Patrick Wilson in Ft. Worth Texas said, “Surely Mark must have felt tempted to end the story with such a soaring vision as Matthew or Luke. Most scholars agree that he wrote for a congregation that was marginal, expendable and suffering some form of persecution. Wouldn't these people come to Christian worship hoping for the blessed relief and consolation of a happy ending?
A conventional happy ending comforts us by its very conclusiveness. What was begun is finished. We are left feeling filled, satisfied and reassured about the order of things. The world is a reliable place after all: dramas begin and conflicts arise, but all is resolved in the final scene. Our hearts are lifted and the curtain falls. Mark advertised his story as "good news." But what kind of good news ends with devastating ambiguity: promises uttered from the shadows of a tomb, women rushing off afraid? Moreover, what pastor, preacher or teacher would dare flout the expectations and longings of vulnerable people?
The jagged edges of these final verses do, in fact, trace Mark's pastoral wisdom. He refuses to tie the loose ends of the gospel into a tidy bow of fleeting consolations. The final verses are ambiguous: a promise greeted by fear; a pledge that that we will "see him" swamped by our own uncertainty and dread. What Mark's ending lacks in romance it makes up for in sheer realism. Isn't this the world we live in? No enchanted world of thinly fabricated happily-every-afters, but a world in which we hold tightly to the promise and fearfully tread our way through a tangle of doubts and amazements.
This is the way Easter dawns upon us: with promise and apprehension. We can either heave the book across the desk in exasperation or mine for deeper significances. Mark's ending, or rather its lack of an ending, leaves us hungry and haunted. We forage back into the Gospel, ravenous for clues. What was it Jesus said in the 14th chapter? "After I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee." We ponder possible meanings. We do "not cease from exploration," as Eliot has put it.
Matthew, Luke and the anonymous authors of the longer and shorter endings understood: this story cannot end here. Mark hinted at the truth in his first verse: "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." The story goes on. His story goes on, and so does ours. We proceed with the promise that accompanies our uncertainty.
We live by faith, then, precariously balancing between the young man's promise and the women's fear and astonishment. We seek ending after ending, only to discover that every ending that we fashion inevitably disappoints us. Every finale forecloses the drama prematurely. An ending says too much too surely, and therefore it never says enough. Although it may satisfy us for the moment, we sense its failure and falsity.”
The young man who performed the Gospel learned that the last verse of Mark is better left as is because Mark didn’t need an ending. The story he was telling was continuing on in the lives of the people who heard about Jesus and believed. The life of the hero of our story is still going on in you and in me. The young man in the tomb understands that there is more to come. "He is not here," not in the tomb, not at the end of the story; "he is going ahead of you," always ahead of us; and "you will see him," in Galilee and in places we would never have expected. He is going ahead of us, and of his story; there is no end.

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