When Is An Ending Not the End

Easter Sunday

Mark 16:1-8

“When is an ending not the end?  When a dead man rises from the tomb-and when a Gospel ends in the middle of a sentence.”

A great story is only as good as the ending.  I like stories where the plot twists surprise me.  The surprise can’t be too out of the blue, like aliens suddenly appear unless aliens are there from the beginning.  The big twist needs foreshadowing.  I also like movies where the main characters overcome an obstacle and have to grow and find something inside they didn’t know they had.  Most action movies with great car chase scenes and lots of shooting fail.  What was the point of “Fast and Furious 5”?  Do Vin Deisel or Bruce Willis ever learn anything about themselves?  I want an ending like the “Lord of the Rings,” where the unassuming hobbits, Frodo and Samwise, have to carry the ring of power and destroy it at Mount Doom, facing both evils from without and temptation from within to save the world.  

I don’t like happily-ever-after movies, where the action resolves easily, and people go on with perfect lives.  I don’t trust Prince Charming.  Sappy romances bore me.  I loved “Harry Met Sally.”  They are so improbable and annoying to each other.  They become friends, try to be lovers, then pull away. Finally, Harry realizes he can be a jerk, puts aside his fantasy woman and runs to Sally, and says, “I love you because you are high maintenance because I know you want your salad dressing on the side.”  You know Harry and Sally will still have arguments, but it feels like true love for imperfect people, much like me.

Did you see Tom Hanks in “Castaway?”  Hanks is stranded on a Pacific island, endures great hardship, overcomes the mind-numbing loneliness where his volleyball, Wilson, is his only companion.  He finally makes contact with a passing ship for rescue.  When he returns home to the amazement of the world, his wife had re-married because she thought he was dead.  At the end of the movie, Hanks is at a crossroads looking at a map and the four directions.  The End.  The next phase of life will go from there.  My heart breaks for him, and yet I’m thrilled he gets to start a new chapter.  Just maybe, if everything goes wrong for me, if I can get through it, I will get another chance too.  That is a brilliant ending.

We don’t all like the same endings, which brings me to the controversial conclusion of Mark’s Gospel.  In the oldest manuscripts, Mark’s Gospel ends this way.  Several women go at dawn to anoint and prepare Jesus’s body for final burial.  Their biggest worry is rolling away the stone covering the tomb.  When they arrive, the tomb is already open, and they are told, “Don’t be alarmed.  He has been raised.  Go ahead and look around.  Then tell his disciples and Peter he has gone ahead to Galilee and will meet you there.”  And the big finale in 16:8.  

“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.”

The End.  Fade to credits.  It’s even more abrupt in Greek, which ends mid-sentence with the preposition “for”…as in, I was going for…I did this for…Imagine pitching this story to a publisher.  “So, the messiah comes, heals people, feeds 5000 more, argues with the religious establishment, gets crucified by the state.  Then after three days, he is raised from the dead.  And then all his followers scatter in terror.”

What is this, some kind of French existentialist farce?  Cannes Film Festival will love it, with its hard shots against hypocritical religion.  But forget Cinemax.  The general public wants more resolution, more triumphalism at the end. 

And that is what happened to the script.  About 100 years later, new versions of Mark appear with verses 9-20 added.  Jesus appears to various disciples, instructs them to spread the news to all of creation, and they do it; the new and improved ending!  Luke and Matthew didn’t like the ending either.  Matthew adds an earthquake to open the tomb, and the women aren’t afraid or silent.  Luke ends an angel telling the women he has been raised, and then the male disciples don’t believe the women, so Jesus has to keep reappearing to more people.  Luke always had more favorable evaluations of women.  John has all kinds of stories, from doubting Thomas to Jesus forgiving Peter.  

Lots of biblical scholars try to bail Mark out.  Maybe the earliest manuscripts were destroyed. Perhaps he ran out of time or paper or just didn’t know the resurrection stories like the other Gospel writers.  

Here is what I think.  Mark was writing around 70 CE, in the wake of the Temple in Jerusalem’s destruction.  His reader’s world was dangerous, falling apart, and probably not the best time to be a follower of Jesus.  Mark knew what he was doing.  I’m sure he knew of resurrection accounts. He just wanted the Gospel to end right there with the women afraid and not telling anyone.  Their fear reminds us if you really believe the Gospel, you should feel a little frightened, or else you might not be getting the point.  The story of God’s love lived by Jesus will change you.  

Mark’s sudden ending brings us to the heart of the Christian faith.  If you embrace a religion where your example and guide is executed by a powerful Empire, who is condemned by the religious status quo, you are adopting a path where vulnerability and love are valued more than power.  Therefore, when you hear the good news, fear and amazement are a healthy and logical response.  

To unpack what I mean, I share this story from a TED talk by Brene Brown.  Brown is a popular writer and podcaster who researches vulnerability and shame.  At her first TED talk in 2010, she wasn’t well-known.  Brown talked about her journey learning to accept vulnerability as more life-giving than trying to have power and control.  Upon realizing this truth, she had a nervous breakdown.  

Afterward, she deeply regretted revealing herself.  She described having a “vulnerability hangover.”   She didn’t leave the house for three days and finally told a friend over lunch, “When did I decide that telling 500 people I had a breakdown was a good idea?”  She wondered if she could stop the talk from going on YouTube.  Maybe she could break into the office and steal the video.  “If another 500 or 1000 people see this video, my life is over.  My colleagues won’t respect me.  I’ll be finished.”  Her friend commented, “You are the worst vulnerability model ever.”  

Brown said she had no contingency plan for 4 million views of her TED talk.  In her second TED talk four years later, Brown admitted, “My life did end that day.”  But it ended for the better.  Brown said she learned a hard lesson, that vulnerability is not a weakness.  She asked her audience to raise their hands if they thought vulnerability was a weakness, and most said Yes.  Then she noted that every successful TED talk speaker showed significant vulnerability, and everyone experienced this a great courage.  Emotional risk in the face of uncertainty and accepting vulnerability is the most accurate measure of courage.  

Brown said since her talk, she received hundreds of offers to speak at colleges and corporations, and they would call and say, “Loved your talk, please come and speak to us, but we would appreciate it if you would not talk about vulnerability and shame.”  She would ask, “What do you want me to talk about since I am a vulnerability and shame researcher.”  They would answer, “innovation, creativity, and change.”  So Brown would show up and say, “The birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change is vulnerability.”

Friends, this message about vulnerability and courage hits home with me as we still pass through this pandemic.  We have felt significant vulnerability from all directions, the death of loved ones and fear for our own lives, from a resurgence of white supremacist hatred to job loss, to even the planet disrupting our lives.  

If you have felt powerless, frustrated, tired, and ineffective at life, don’t believe the myth that it is because you are weak. We have all faced a vulnerability that is so much bigger than us.  As I have listened to our random sample at First Churches, what I hear is not human weakness but profound courage.  We may not count it as courage to do our work, raise our children, or keep our sanity, but it is.  I think love has grown among us while realizing vulnerability.    

The women at the empty tomb on Easter were so much like us.  It’s hard to imagine a God who joins us in being vulnerable to pain and injustice.  What a fearful, wondrous reality.  They did what I first do when I recognize God’s work- run and hide in silence.  But we know that they did not stop there.  And we don’t have to stop either.  I love it that Mark ends right here with fear and amazement.  This unfinished story calls to us to finish it.  Mark puts us to work; we must decide how the story will turn out for us, for our time, and our world.  Friends, hear the Easter Good News, the tomb is empty, and Christ has already gone before us.  I wish you the courage to continue the story!

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