FINISH THE STORY
Easter Sunday, Year B Text: Mark 16: 1-8
The last time Easter Sunday fell on April 1st, April Fool’s Day, was before I was even born – 1956. It will only happen two more times in this century. Thus, it seems unavoidable that today’s sermon should begin with a joke. And so, I offer you my favorite, very old, slightly irreverent, Christian joke. You have permission to laugh.
One day Jesus was walking outside the city walls when he noticed a crowd gathered up ahead. Curious, he walked over. To his horror, he saw that in the middle of the crowd was a woman crouched on the ground. And all the people in the crowd had big rocks in their hands. They were getting ready to stone her to death. Jesus leaped between the woman and the crowd and cried out “Wait! What are you doing?” The leader of the mob replied “This woman was caught in adultery, so we’re going to stone her.” Then Jesus narrowed his eyes, and he looked at the people, and he said “Let the one among you who has never sinned, cast the first stone.” There was a long silence, and slowly people began look down and drop their rocks. But then, suddenly, from the back of the crowd, a big rock sailed through the air and POW! hit the woman right on the noggen. Jesus was shocked, and he looked at the back of the crowd. And then he spotted the person who threw the rock and he said ………………!
Has that ever happened to you. Right at the critical moment, you forget the last word or the last line of a joke? Pretty terrible, isn’t it? A joke without a punchline is about as dead a thing as there is!
And it’s not just jokes. Think about the last sentence of a speech or sermon, that last page of a novel, the last note of a musical piece, the last scene of a movie or play. All these are like punchlines: they resolve all the tensions, tie up the loose ends, answer every lingering question. Without that one last line, the rest of the story, or the song, or the drama just dies.
Our Gospel passage this morning comes from the Gospel of Saint Mark. Saint Mark is the oldest and shortest of the four gospels. In 30 years of studying and preaching Mark, one of the things I’ve noticed over and over again is that the gospel has a curious feature. It leaves out more information than it includes. All through the Gospel, Mark recalls stories about Jesus, or even stories told by Jesus, but he leaves them curiously unfinished. One listens to these stories and always wants to ask: what next?
Over the centuries, biblical scholars have noticed this feature of Mark. One of the theories they’ve developed that what we read in the pages of the Bible is only part of the Good News of Saint Mark. The community that originally gathered around Mark and his Gospel possessed many more Jesus stories that were not written down. The stories were lodged in the memories of those earliest disciples. And whenever the St Mark Christians gathered for worship and fellowship they would share the stories. In those first assemblies, there might have been a reading from the written Gospel, which was then followed by sharing and conversation of unwritten gospel. And then more conversation would follow, maybe even some spirited debate, about what those stories meant.
Let’s go back to my joke for a second. Does anyone here know the punchline to my joke? See how it works? The body of the joke is the equivalent of the written gospel, but the punch line was left out. But I can rely on the gathered community to remember it. That’s how Mark’s Gospel works.
In today’s passage, Mark’s record of Easter morning, we have the same thing going on. Did it not strike you that the story I just read ended abruptly? Listen to the last verses again:
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.
Boom. That’s it. That’s how Saint Mark ends his gospel. It’s even more awkward in the Greek: the last word is actually “for”. The Gospel literally ends in mid-sentence. It’s as if Mark ended his gospel with dot dot dot.
Now your Bibles at home will contain an additional 8-12 verses. Curious thing, but the oldest and most reliable Greek manuscripts of St. Mark’s Gospel do not include those extra verses. Biblical scholars of all stripes are pretty near unanimous that these verses and stories were added later. It seems that scribes along the way supplied endings to the Gospel of Mark because the original ending was so uncomfortably abrupt, there was just too much left hanging.
I have this mental image of what Mark was up to, what he wanted to happen. I’ve always imagined a little group of Mark’s friends and fellow disciples sitting in a room, listening to him tell his breathless story. And then, after he has been telling this story for more than two hours, at the climactic moment, when everybody is leaning in, tense, eager to know how the story ends, Mark stops, and sits down, and smiles and looks expectantly at his friends. Awkward silence. And then, one by one, those disciples begin to share their own stories of resurrection, of encountering the risen Jesus. They supply the resurrection stories that Mark leaves out.
And so it goes to this day. As spectacular and unique as it was, I’m not sure the historical event of the Resurrection itself would have been enough to account for the miracle of the faith it birthed. The real miracle is not that those first disciples experienced the risen Jesus, but that disciples ever since have continued to encounter the risen Jesus. Mark ends his gospel in mid-sentence and looks at us, at you and me, to finish the story. He beckons us to share with one another our own experiences of the Risen Christ. I know this room is full of such stories right now. Every person here today has one, or perhaps more. I know, because some of you have shared them with me.
But Mark also beckons us to complete his gospel by embodying the risen Christ. That’s our job. To be living ends of the Gospel. Your life, my life, is the “what next” Mark wants to hear about.
My all time favorite story of a person who embodied the what next of the Gospel I heard from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the retired archbishop of South Africa and winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace price. Desmond’s whole life was a powerful testimony to the risen Christ. But behind his story is another story. How many of you have ever heard of Father Trevor Huddleston?
Father Huddleston was a white Anglican priest in the town near Soweto, where Desmond grew up. One day, walking to the market with his mother in the 1940’s, little Desmond saw a white man walking towards them. Like all black South African children, the sight of a white man approaching was an instinctive source of fear. But as the man came near, he tipped his hat in the traditional sign of respect and said “Good morning Mrs. Tutu.” Desmond often shares that his vocation to become a priest was born in that moment when a white man in a dog collar tipped his hat to a keffir woman! Desmond would grow up to work with Fr. Huddleston, who was one of the first white men in South Africa openly to resist apartheid. More years later, now Bishop Huddleston would help to consecrate Desmond as the first black bishop in South Africa, and one of the towering Christian leaders of the 20th century.
Tipping one’s hat and saying good morning. Not altogether dramatic is it. Yet, such acts are how the Risen Lord holds this broken world together, if we would only see. Trevor Huddleston became the next verse of the Gospel for Desmond, who became a next verse of the Gospel of countless thousands of Christians, including this one. And now, that story is a “what happens next” for the Gospel story you came here to experience.
On this Easter Sunday of 2018, we American Christians find ourselves at a particularly difficult mid-sentence. In my six decades of life, which spans the infamous sixties, I have never known our society to be as depressed, conflicted and befuddled as it is right now. But is this new? Of course not. The people who first gathered around Jesus, the people who first gathered around Mark’s Gospel knew such anxiety and despair, and far far worse. Yet gather they did, and listen they did, and they shared the stories in their hearts, and witnessed to the world through word and action.
The strife is o’er, the battle is won. The victory of life is done. The song of triumph is now begun. The wonderful old hymn sings. Death no longer has any sting. Old Saint Paul preaches. The tomb is empty, he is not here, he is going before you to Galilee, Saint Mark tells us. The story was not over on that resurrection morning long ago. The story had only just begun. The empty tomb was just that: empty. Jesus was set loose in the world. Jesus is still loose in the world, wreaking a havoc of love. By one Gospel ending at a time, the endings you and I supply, Jesus unleashes compassion and justice in a world obsessed with control and domination.
So, go on out of here. Saint Mark wants YOU to finish his gospel. Finish the story. Go tell someone, anyone, everyone, that he is risen, he is loose, he will meet you in the ordinary things of your lives, the Galilees in which you live and work. Go on out of here, and finish the story. In your life, and with your life, write the punchline for this story.