Tuesday, April 10, 2012

What's your Easter ending?

A sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Delray Beach
 Easter Day – Lectionary Year B - April 8, 2012
Acts 10:34 – 43; Ps. 118; 1 Cor. 15:1 – 11; Mark 16: 1 – 8
Preacher:  The Reverend Canon William H. Stokes, Rector

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…Mark 16:8

            A couple of weeks ago, members of our youth group, ages 15 – 18 took a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral and other sacred and secular sites in England.  One of their first stops was Westminster Abbey in London.   It is an incredibly beautiful church, rich in history.  As their website notes, the Abbey has been the coronation church since 1066.[1]  The current sanctuary was built in 1245 by Henry III and 17 monarchs are buried there including Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots.[2]  
No visit to Westminister Abbey is complete without stopping at Poet’s Corner….It’s in the South Transept of the Abbey Church…The 14th century writer, Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales is buried there….So are poets Edmund Spencer and Alfred Lord Tennyson…Shakespeare is not buried there, his grave is at Strattford-upon-Avon; but there is a plaque in his honor in Poet’s Corner.
Charles Dickens is buried in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey…Did you know that this year is the bicentennial of Dickens’s birth?  He was born on February 7, 1812.  This has received a lot of attention in literary circles…And why not?  Dickens has given us some of the great works of English literature:  Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield as well as his beloved A Christmas Carol with the memorable characters Jacob Marley, Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim and, of course, Ebeneezer Scrooge. 
Dicken’s died on June 8, 1870 from complications of a stroke.  Wikipedia reports that “Contrary to his wish to be buried at Rochester Cathedral ‘in an inexpensive, unostentatious, and strictly private manner,’ he was laid to rest in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey.”[3]
At the time of his stroke, Dickens had been working on a novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood… It was never completed… It’s not among the most widely read of his works, probably because it is unfinished…It’s a murder mystery and Dickens never told anyone who the murderer in the story was…This makes for an unsatisfying read…If you  read a murder mystery, you usually want to find out who did it!  Since Dickens’s death, several have undertaken to provide a solution to the mystery and to complete the story.[4]
In 1985, the Royal Shakespeare Company produced a musical adaption of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  It soon moved to Broadway and ran for 608 performances, winning five 1986 Tonys, including Best Musical.[5]
The producers were clever and creative in managing the unfinished ending of the work.  They opted for audience participation. Toward the conclusion of each night’s performance of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, one of the actors came out on stage and announced, “Here Mr. Dicken’s novel ended…” and then invited audience members to vote for the murderer from among several possible characters in the show.  Once the audience had selected their person, the cast finished the story using the audience’s solution…Needless to say, the cast was prepared to present several endings to the story…Hmm
            Did you notice anything peculiar about this morning’s Gospel reading from Mark?  I hope you did….There is a lot that is peculiar about it!  To begin with, it’s a missing person story…Jesus is missing…His body is not in the tomb.  Well, we expected that, after all, we’ve celebrated Easter before…But this is not the strange thing.
What’s strange is that Jesus never appears in Mark’s account of Easter morning.  Doesn’t that strike you as odd?  An Empty Tomb, but no Jesus!  We hear only an assertion from a young man dressed in a white robe, “He is not here; he has been raised”  (Mark 16:5).  Clearly this young man is an angelic messenger:
After telling the women that Jesus has been raised, he offers them an assurance, “He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him just as he told you” (Mark 16:7).  Jesus is spoken of, his resurrection is proclaimed, but he himself never appears.
The reaction of the women in this account is also strange…Mark tells us that after hearing this message from the young man dressed in a white robe, “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”  (Mark 16:8).   At this point, Mark’s Gospel apparently ended…It ended at chapter 16 verse 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 (Mark 16:80.
What kind of ending is this? What’s going on here?  If the women didn’t say anything to anyone, how did word of Jesus’ resurrection spread to such an extent that we are all here 2,000 plus years later still celebrating it; still talking about it and him?  And where is Jesus?
Now, some of you are thinking, “Wait a minute, Mark’s Gospel doesn’t end at chapter 16 verse 8, there are other endings; endings in which the resurrected Jesus appears.  Isn’t it in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus appears to the eleven and upraids them for their unbelief?[6]  Isn’t in Mark that Jesus tells them they will cast out demons and even handle poisonous snakes??”[7]
Good for you!  You’re right, there are, in fact, other endings of Mark’s Gospel. There are three to be precise:  A one sentence ending after verse 8; another so-called “shorter ending;” and still another ending called “the longer ending.” That’s the one with the bit about handling poisonous snakes…(Don’t try this at home). Yes, there are three endings to Mark’s Gospel…When you go home, check this out…Any reputable Bible will include all three.[8]
Nonetheless, scholars widely agree that all of these endings were later additions; later additions provided by persons other than the writer of Mark…later additions supplied because some felt that the ending of the Gospel at chapter 16 verse 8 was unsatisfactory, unfulfilling…a mystery with an incomplete denoument… like The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Even Matthew and Luke, who wrote their Gospels about 20 or 30 years after Mark and had Mark’s Gospel as a source for their own works, seemed to find Mark’s ending unsatisfactory and unfulfilling.[9]  They ended their Gospels with accounts of the resurrected Jesus appearing to his disciples.  What do you think? What do you make of Mark’s ending? How do you solve the mystery of the Gospel according to St. Mark?
            There are some who suggest that Mark died before he could complete the Gospel…Others suggest that the church for which he was writing was suffering persecution, as his Gospel clearly infers, and that he was arrested himself and was unable to complete the Gospel.   This is all conjecture. There are a couple of additional suggestions about the possible endings, but none especially convincing.[10] 
What if Mark intended to end his Gospel just the way he did?  A number of influential biblical scholars today support this conclusion.  Mark’s Gospel, written sometime between 65 and 70 AD, some 30 years after the crucifixion, seems to assume the ressurection appearance of Jesus to the disciples is in the background.  Still, Mark seems to make an intentional decision not to portray it. Why? 
            The Oxford Bible Commentary, a very fine scholarly resourse, suggests that, perhaps, the message of the young man in the white robe “has more sigificance than its surface meeting.”   Refering to the directive that they are to go to Galilee, The Oxford Bible Commentary editors observe, “For Mark, Galilee is the place where discipleship starts, and the path of discipleship is one which leads from Galilee to Jersusalem, which for Mark, is the place of suffering and death…The way of discipleship for Mark is the way of the cross…”[11]
            They continue, “Jesus true identity is to be seen as the crucified one; Jesus’ divine sonship is seen mostly clearly and most starkly when he dies…If Jesus is risen, he is risen as the crucified one.  The gospel for Mark is, thus, the Good News about Jesus, but it is Mark’s Jesus…for Mark, Jesus is the Son of God seen most clearly in his suffering and death…”[12]
What they say next is especially provocative.  Listen.  They write, “Mark’s narrative may be only the beginning of the gospel…The rest of the gospel must be completed by the reader [emphasis added], but the reader can only complete the story by following as a disciple of Mark’s Jesus, and that means going to Galilee, being prepared to follow the way of discipleship as spelt out by him, i.e. the way of the cross…There, and only there, will Jesus be seen and experienced….” Maybe Mark’s gospel is unfinished,” they conclude.  “But perhaps that is deliberate.  It is up to the reader to supply the ending [emphasis added] – and that,” they conclude, “is the perennial challenge of this gospel to all its readers today.”[13]
            Another highly reputable scholar of Mark, Lamar Williamson, comes to pretty much the same conclusion.  He writes, “The last verse of Mark’s Gospel falls like a bomb on the carefully nurtured expectation that the women will always faithfully do what needs to be done and that predictions of Jesus will always find fulfillment in the story.  Instead of giving the message to the disciples as they were commanded, the women flee from the tomb in astonishment, fear and trembling and tell no one anything.  And instead of reporting a glorious epiphany in Galilee, the Gospel ends abruptly with no resurrection appearance at all…The crucifixion had seemed to end the story but did not.  The resurrection does not really do so either.” [14]
            Williamson concludes, “In one sense, this unfinished story puts the ball in the reader’s court.  It puts us to work; we must decide how the story should come out” [emphasis added].   Williamson adds, “In a deeper sense, however, Jesus remains in control of the ball.  No ending proposed by our decisions can contain him, any more than the tomb with its great stone could.  Always he goes before us; always he beckons us forward to a new appearance in the Galilee of the nations, in the Galilee of our daily lives.  We never know when we shall see him, we only know we shall not escape him.”[15]
            You know, you might have come to church today and heard of Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalen at the Garden Tomb, heard about her mistaking the resurrected Lord for a gardener…You might have heard about her joy and her surprise at recognizing him when he called her by name (John 20:11 – 18).
You might have heard about Jesus appearing to fear-filled disciples in a locked room, showing the wounds of his hands and feet and sides to them, challenging them for their unbelief (John 20:19 – 22; Luke 24:36 – 40).

You might have heard about two disciples walking along the road to Emmaus, walking with the risen Lord, failing to recognize him, that is, until they invited him to dine with them.. He took the bread, blessed broke and gave it to them…Then their eyes were opened…The risen Lord was made known to them in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:13 – 31).  Yes, you might have heard about this morning…
You might have heard about Jesus appearing to the disciples on a mountain in Galilee, a mountain to which he had directed them…You might have heard about how he appeared to them and sent them out to preach the Gospel to all nations; to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; and how he promised to be with them always, even to the end of the ages (Matthew 28:16 – 20).
Yes, you might have heard all these things this morning, but you didn’t!  You didn’t hear one word about them!  Instead you got Mark’s Gospel and his non-ending ending, which put the ball in your court…So how will you end the story?
            Will you leave church this morning without the risen Christ appearing to you and in you?  Will your lives tomorrow be as though nothing has changed, as though nothing is different? 
I hope not…
            You see, as wondrous and powerful as all those other accounts of Easter are in Matthew, Luke and John, they are still about the encounter others had with the risen Christ.  That’s not unimportant…But when all is said and done, what really matters is the encounter each and every one of us has with the risen Christ…You know, people are too often focused on what the resurrection as something that happens to us after we die.  It is about that; but it is just as much about what is supposed to happen to us in this life!  Is Christ raised for me and in me?  Is he raised for you and in you?
            That’s what Easter faith is all about…Has the risen Christ been raised in you?  Does he live and breath in you?  Is his resurrected Spirit the animating reality of your life?  And living in you, will you go forth and be his hands and feet and ears and eyes serving the world in his name?….Well, will you?  Or will you be like those women on Easter morning so long ago, saying nothing to anyone because you are disbelieving or afraid, or because you feel so mired in your own sinfulness you can’t let the light of the Easter gospel into your life, or because other realities have captured your attention and your life?  How do you answer?  That’s the great question this morning.  
Yes, Christ is risen…He is risen indeed.  But the great mystery, the real question this morning is, is Christ risen in you? What is your Easter ending? 

[1]  http://www.westminster-abbey.org/our-history
[2]  http://www.westminster-abbey.org/our-history
[3]  See Wikipedia - “Charles Dickens” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Dickens
[4]  See Wikipedia – “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mystery_of_Edwin_Drood
[5]   See Wikipedia – “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mystery_of_Edwin_Drood
[6]   Mark – Longer Ending 16:14.
[7]   Mark - Longer Ending- 16:18.
[8]   See, for example, material following Mark 16:8 in The Oxford Annotated Study Bible – New Revised Standard Version, Third Edition ed.  Michael C. Coogan (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 91 – New Testament.
[9]   See “Mark” in The Oxford Bible Commentary ed. John Barton and John Muddiman (Oxofrd:  Oxford University Press,  2001), 921 - 922.
[10]  The Oxford Bible Commentary, p. 921
[11]  The Oxford Bible Commentary, p. 921
[12]  The Oxford Bible Commentary, p. 921 - 922
[13]  The Oxford Bible Commentary, p. 921 - 922
[14]  Williamson, Lamar Mark: Intepretation for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville:  John Knox Press, 1983) 285.
[15]  Williamson, p. 286.

No comments: