The Rest of the Story

(A sermon for Easter Sunday, Year B    April 12, 2009    Mark 16:1-8)

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid. (Mark 16:8)

Thus ends Mark’s gospel, leaving us wondering, what happened to the rest of the story?

What happened to Peter and the other disciples? When will Mary Magdalene turn around and see Jesus? Each gospel tells a story of Easter morning, and in each there are elements we have come to expect, even if the details vary just a bit. Mark’s young man becomes Matthew’s angel and Luke multiplies one angel to two. But something is wrong here. Something is missing.

Some One is missing.

Where is the risen Jesus? Where is the relief at his appearance in the garden, the story of recognition and love we heard the choir singing about just minutes ago?

Instead we read of Alarm and Terror and Amazement and Fear and Flight.

I suppose we can understand why arriving at an empty tomb frightened and shocked these women. They must have wondered what happened to Jesus’ body. They must have wondered who or what they were seeing in the form of a young man in white, inviting them to peer into the tomb. And frightened, they fled.

End of story.

But it’s not the end of the story, is it? We know that from the other gospels. So the interesting question becomes, why did Mark end the story so abruptly? Why does he leave us wondering whether things will turn out the way we know they did?

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.

The women rose early that morning to go to the tomb, planning to perform a ritual that honored the dead, but like most rituals, it meant more than just the actions involved. The women came to the tomb seeking closure. They wanted to know the end of the story, to have the peace of seeing the body of their friend and teacher, Jesus, laid properly to rest, his suffering at an end.

But instead of finding closure, they found an opening, the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. Instead of knowing an ending, they found themselves at a beginning, a terrifying beginning, a beginning they could not understand.

We have our rituals, too, the Easter lilies we donate in the memory of those we love, the flowers we take to the cemetery on Memorial Day, the brother or sister we call when we’re thinking of the parents we buried years ago.

Where I’m from in Virginia, there are other rituals surrounding a death. In May of 1993, my mother died of cancer at 67. She died at home, as she had wished to do, and her body was still in the house when the word got around and friends began to stop by, bringing the strangest things, one with a half-gallon of ice cream right from her own freezer.

Mother’s friends from Bridge Club and Garden Club drew up a list and volunteered to come and answer the door for us over the next few days, to shield us from visitors when we weren’t up to seeing them, to receive flowers and casseroles, to answer the phone. It helped us, but I think it also gave them something to do, and that was consoling. I remember being floored at how many people stopped by, but even more I remember being amazed that no one expected me to greet all of them. The ladies took care of us, sheltered us and watched over us: an anointing of a different kind.

You see, it all happened in the way they expected. They knew just what to do.
Mary Magdalene and Mary the Mother of James and Salome knew just what to do, too. They owed this final act of kindness to Jesus, to handle him gently, to say their farewells, and they also knew it had to wait until the Sabbath had ended. From Friday afternoon to Sunday morning they waited, as patiently and sadly as my mother’s friends perched on the antique couch in our long entrance hall from Sunday to Wednesday, ready to hop up and answer the door.

Among the many were Ann Doug and Martha and Katherine and Leola, names that bring back a place and time to me as the story in Mark’s gospel may have for the first people to read and to hear it.

We are used to hearing stories over and over on television now, news stories that play on a loop, movies on cable that run all month long, shows we Tivo or DVR and play back again for our pleasure. But in that time and place, you had two choices: to read or to listen. Mark wrote his gospel not only to be read but to be heard. The way the stories interweave keeps a listener’s attention. Its compact nature means you can hear it all in one sitting.

Imagine hearing the story for the first time, without benefit of the other versions. Imagine a traveling evangelist, reciting the story or reading it from a scroll to an crowd of people.

Imagine hearing how it ends:

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.

God bless them, of course they were afraid. None of this made any sense. How could he possibly be waiting in Galilee? How could a dead man be on the road? They had seen him die on the cross.

I don’t know how you deal with loss, but I can tell you the way I do, when I am in the midst of distress. I figure out how I can manage to live with it, what it will take, what I need to do, and then I do it.

I try to cope.

It’s not always successful, but I try.

And so I understand these women, and how shocked they must have been, and how terrified, because their plan for that day did not include this end to the story. Their plan included actions that would give their grief a concrete expression. Their plan included being together and trying to cope, using the rituals appropriate to their place and time.

In my place and time, in Portsmouth, Virginia, in the spring of 1983, the rituals played out among our family and friends. I marveled at the food that filled the refrigerator, salads and cakes and ham biscuits and some of the best-tasting chicken salad ever.

One morning, our dear friend Shippy came to be the doorperson; she was one of those friends so close to my parents that I called her “aunt.” Aunt Shippy was in her mid-70’s than and had been undergoing radiation treatments for a tumor near her right ear. That treatment killed her appetite, making her weak and worrying her family. Nothing tasted right, she said. Her husband and daughter urged her to drink cans of Ensure, and she did so, dutifully, but still we all worried.

I have to admit that I felt prepared to lose her, too. I could be strong enough to face anything, I thought. I had written the end of her story without realizing it, just as the women wrote in their hearts the end of the story for Jesus, to settle their own grief.

On the day that Aunt Shippy came to help, I had been in the living room, receiving a visitor, and then went back to the kitchen to get some lunch. I sat down at the table with her, and watched her take a little bite out of a quarter of a sandwich made with that incredible chicken salad. She looked up at me, surprised, and said, “Why, that tastes good!” I sat delighted as she finished the whole thing. The stone, you see, had been rolled away.

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.

Immediately you know it can’t be true that they said nothing to anyone. It would be a very different story then, wouldn’t it? If the disciples had never heard the Good News from the women, we wouldn’t be sitting here today, joyful and expectant, ready to shout Alleluia at the least provocation!  So perhaps Mark’s purpose in telling the story this way is to convince us to tell the good news ourselves, to say,
Wait! I know there must be more to the story!”

For it is not over yet. The One who came to live among us, the One who came to show God’s love for us, the One who died on the cross, could not be stopped by people’s actions. The love shown by Jesus in his life and in his death did not end in a tomb. It spread wide into the world and brings us together this morning to celebrate God’s power over death, seen in the Resurrection of Christ.

Hear the good news: fear and flight are not the last words. Christ is alive. And that is just the beginning of the rest of the story. Alleluia! Amen.

4 thoughts on “The Rest of the Story”

  1. I love the line “But instead of finding closure, they found an opening,” Great sermon celebrating the resurrection!

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