Scripture: MARK 16:1-8
Once upon a time, there was a woman who knocked on her son’s door one Sunday morning. “It’s time to get up,” she yelled through the door. “We have to get to church.” When her son didn’t get up, she returned a little while later and knocked harder. “You’ve got to get up now. We’re late.” Still no answer. So a few minutes later, she came back a third time and said with impressive finality, . . .
Well, never mind what she said. It’s not really that important, is it? Or is it? Endings are important, aren’t they. We care what happens at the end of The Lord of the Rings, or the Harry Potter series, or Avengers: Endgame. Just as we thrill to the final chords of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring or Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or your favorite song. When I lived in Rhode Island, I sang in a chorus. As we were warming up one day before a performance of Handel’s Messiah, we came to the very end of that incredible chorus of “Hallelujah.” The conductor had us sing, “Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah,” and just as were priming to sing that final and decisive “Hallelujah,” the conductor put down his baton and said, “Save it for the performance.” Agonizing not to be able to sing those climactic notes! But boy did we sing them during the concert! As we will do a little later in today’s service!
Most of the time, I like an ending that brings a story or a song or a piece of music to a satisfying conclusion. “Ah, that’s the way it should end,” we think. So it’s odd and somewhat disconcerting and strangely unsatisfying when we hear the scene we just heard at the very end of the gospel of Mark. Jesus has suffered this terrible death. He’s been erased and negated. And we’re so looking forward to a conclusion that will make it all right. The other three gospels all sense this need, and they give us triumphant scenes of Jesus returning after death to reassure these bereft disciples of his presence. Matthew, Luke and John give us a convincing resurrection.
Mark, though? He leaves us hanging. Yeah, the heavy stone that has blocked the tomb of Jesus has been rolled away. That’s pretty fantastic. And there’s an angelic figure inside the tomb telling these dutiful women not to be afraid, reassuring them that they’ll see Jesus again. That doesn’t happen every day. But that’s it. No sighting. No sigh of relief at an actual appearance of Jesus. No dramatic and persuasive conclusion. Just a promise that Jesus will meet them in Galilee.
And it may be that, for some of us, this conclusion is something of a letdown. “Really, that’s it?” Or maybe some of us kind of fill in Mark’s blanks with the stories told by the other gospels—Jesus’ appearance to Mary in the garden (John 20:11-18); or the encounter two travelers have with the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35); or the risen Christ returning to send the disciples on their mission (Matthew 28:16-20).
That’s not Mark’s story, though. For Mark, this is the way the story ends: “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” (16:8). End of story! That last sentence is really even starker in the original Greek than it sounds in an English translation. It’s something much more like, “they said nothing to anyone; they were afraid, for . . .” The sentence ends with the word “for.” In Greek, that word “for” never even ends a sentence, much less a gospel. But it does here. The story’s conclusion is intentionally inconclusive—an ending that’s not an ending at all.
And that’s precisely its gift. There’s something so gorgeously apt about Mark’s story of Jesus ending in that extraordinarily peculiar way. While I usually crave a satisfying conclusion, with all the loose ends wrapped up, in this case I think Mark was a genius. And that’s because that’s the way we live life. So often, endings are far from neat and tidy.
The journalist Ted Anthony wrote a piece that appeared last Sunday, in which he wondered when we would know that the COVID pandemic had ended. How we wish for that day! “Here’s the problem with anticipating the end of the pandemic [though]: No one is sure just what that ending will look like or when it will arrive. . .. Will it be when most of the country is vaccinated? When schools all reconvene safely? When hospitals’ COVID beds are empty?” He goes on to say, “The kind of finish that the coronavirus has in store for weary Americans has no distinct ending. That’s a hard pill to swallow for Americans long trained . . . to expect well-defined and often optimistic conclusions to tortuous sagas.” As much as we might wish for that sort of clean ending, says Anthony, the ending we’ll get is much more likely to be like the ending of the HBO series “The Sopranos,” when, he says, “all goes black, forever unresolved as Journey sings: ‘The movie never ends, it goes on and on and on and on.’”
And it’s not just the pandemic that seems allergic to closure, either. As Anthony says, “All kinds of momentous things that today’s humans are enduring lack distinct endings. Climate change. The ‘war on terror.’ Persisting racism and sexism and homophobia.” He quotes psychologist Kaitlin Fitzgerald as saying that, with most challenges, “recovery is not a linear process and it doesn’t have an ending that’s clearly defined.” At the end of the Anthony piece, he quotes the science fiction writer Frank Herbert. “There is no real ending,” said Herbert. “It’s just the place where you stop the story” (http://plaindealer-oh.newsmemory.com/?publink=05be5749b).
And when we hear that, Mark’s story doesn’t seem so weird after all. It’s the story of our lives. And, like the two Marys and Salome in Mark’s story, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if that open-endedness left us with at least a little bit of anxiety, or fear. Life’s incompleteness can mean that many of us live with fears, either low-level or right there on the surface. And not just COVID-related. We may fear losing a job or falling off the wagon or developing dementia or having someone we adore die. I suspect we all live with some degree of the “terror and amazement” that seize the two Marys and Salome at the tomb. I’m guessing you can’t live life without some fear that what matters to you may vanish.
So in the midst of this saga that has no real ending, the words of this angel dressed all in white have a poignancy that may well hold us in their thrall: “Do not be alarmed . . .. Jesus has been raised and is not here . . .. But go, tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Jesus, just as he told you” (16:6-7).
There you will see Jesus. Where? In Galilee. Galilee isn’t some grand and stuffy place. It’s not some imagined utopia or religious mecca or fantasized Shangri-la. Galilee is the home of these three dutiful women and the male disciples. When the angel tells them to go to Galilee, this heavenly messenger is assuring these petrified women that they will see Jesus when? When they get home. You don’t have to go on a pilgrimage to some distant, so-called “holy,” place. All you have to do is open your eyes and ears and hearts, right there in your own home and community and daily routine. There you will see Jesus.
Teresa of Avila, the great sixteenth-century Spanish mystic, became impatient at the church hierarchy’s dismissal of our physical bodies, as though God were confined to some sort of ethereal, transcendent realm, free of bodily limitations and other mundane distractions. She knew earthly life and physical bodies matter. So she said, with incisive and profound simplicity, that God was to be found “among the pots and pans” (Mirabai Starr, Wild Mercy, pp. 22-23).
Look around at the crocuses and greening grass and daffodils: there, in their bursting beauty and vitality, you will see Jesus. Call to mind what it’s like to walk in the countless parks that fill Northeast Ohio: there, in their verdancy and enfolding loveliness, you will see Jesus. I know it may be slightly awkward, but if you’re participating in worship today with someone else, family or friend, look at them now: there you will see Jesus, in their laugh or their tenderness or their devotion. Call to mind the richness of a friendship, or of the embrace of a parent or spouse or child: there, in the richness of lasting connection, you will see Jesus. Remember a time when deep connections were made across racial lines, or a glass ceiling was broken, or you and others have taken palpable steps toward healing climate change: there, in movements for justice and peace, you will see Jesus. It’s all right there, “among the pots and pans.”
Not every story is completely without resolution, of course. Let’s return to the story with which we began. Remember, it’s a Sunday morning, and a woman knocks repeatedly on her son’s door. Again and again, he stubbornly refuses to get up. Finally the mother has had it, and she says exasperatedly through the door, “Look, it’s Sunday morning, you’re forty-six years old, and you’re the minister of the church. You need to get up and go to church!” You see, some stories are finished and wrapped up neatly, and we revel in those.
Because life is so open-ended, though, we need to know of a holy presence that transcends the sometimes-unsettling uncertainty. That’s what the ending of Mark’s gospel reassures us. It tells us, in this strangely circular, post-modern way, that while every beginning may be an ending of sorts, so also every ending is, at the same time, a promising new beginning. This strange and abrupt ending of Mark’s gospel reassures us that right there, in the muck and mire and mystery of daily existence, the risen Christ comes to life. And maybe we’ll see this living Christ most vividly in a moment of understanding and acceptance and love.
My friend Don Snyder has been writing a series of 100 autobiographical poems that he’s sending out to friends this spring, one poem per day. On Day 7, he wrote about going to visit his old high school football coach several years ago, after Don learned that his former coach was dying of cancer. Don hadn’t seen Coach Hodge in forty-six years. As he sat with the coach, this is some of what happened:
I thanked him
for giving me a chance.
I thanked him
for saving me from the war.
I thanked him
for believing in me.
Tears filled his eyes
and then he said this:
“I believed in you, Donnie, but
you never believed in yourself,
I’d never known anything about him.
I’d never known that he had lost a son,
his only child.
But he knew this about me.
The thing I’d tried hardest
I turned away.
I didn’t want him to see
that I had tears in my eyes now.
He took my hand.
Here, he said. Sit with me.
You don’t have to be a
tough guy anymore.
There, in Galilee. There, in your home and mine. There in our work and our leisure and our care for each other and our making of justice. Right there, the risen Christ has gone ahead. Mark knew it when he wrote his brilliantly ended gospel. In our messy and often incomplete lives, just there, you and I will see Jesus. Do not fear. Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! And so we sing, “Hallelujah!”