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Finish the Story

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church
The Rev. Bart Smith
The Resurrection of Christ (April 1, 2018)
Mark 16:1-8 – “Finish the Story”

         When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they could go and anoint Jesus’ dead body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they came to the tomb. They were saying to each other, “Who’s going to roll the stone away from the entrance for us?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away. (And it was a very large stone!) Going into the tomb, they saw a young man in a white robe seated on the right side; and they were startled. But he said to them, “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here. Look, here’s the place where they laid him. Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.” Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.


Some years ago a seminary student memorized the entire gospel according to Mark, all 16 chapters. Not only did he memorize it, he performed it on stage—live and in front of an audience. The student chose to end Mark’s gospel where we did just now: chapter 16, verse 8, “Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” He did this because that’s what scholarly consensus says is the ending to Mark.

There are options (sort of) for how the gospel is supposed to end. You can cut it off at the version I read or you can read on through “the Shorter Ending of Mark” or the “Longer Ending of Mark.” If you look in the footnotes of many Bibles, you’ll see that in some of the manuscripts editors looked through to compile the final version, they added the word “Amen,” to the shorter ending. So verse 8 in the shorter ending would read, “And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter. And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation. Amen.”  [1]

That rounds out rather nicely, don’t you think?

But consensus says the oldest manuscripts end without that verse. No resurrection appearances. No conversation with Jesus, as John’s gospel describes. So the student ended his act that way. His professor later reported that:

“At his first performance, however, after he spoke that ambiguous last verse, he stood there awkwardly, shifting from one foot to the other, the audience waiting for more, waiting for closure, waiting for a proper ending. Finally after several anxious seconds… the student decided to go with the shorter ending and added a solid, ‘Amen!’ “and made his exit. The relieved audience applauded loudly and appreciatively.

Upon reflection, though, the student realized that by providing the audience with a satisfying conclusion, his ‘Amen!’ had actually betrayed the dramatic intention of the text. So, at the next performance, when he reached the final verse, he simply paused for a half beat and left the stage in silence. The discomfort and uncertainty within the audience were obvious… and as people exited… the buzz of conversation was dominated by the experience of the non-ending.” [2]

Oh, the experience of the non-ending…

Unfinished things are just so… well, unfinished. Incomplete. They lack closure. I don’t know about you, but I personally like things to wrap up. Forgive me for this reference, but it’s like the end of the HBO series, “The Sopranos,” if you ever saw that show. After six seasons of closely following Tony Soprano, a New Jersey mobster, you never find out if he dies or not. Six whole seasons and it all ends with the chime of a diner door and a black screen! Critics and average viewers are still complaining about it.

It’s an extra bonus if a story ends on a “high note.” But not ol’ Mark. He leaves us hanging.

Not only can that be irritating, it’s true in an existential sense, as well. We’re more accustomed to dead-ends. That’s life. Events don’t always unfold to our expectations. And beyond that, on a deeper level, as disappointing and brutal as life can be, our stories usually end like Mary, Mary and Salome’s stories did. A non-ending. Or even worse, a bad ending. An ending with terror and dread. With heartache. With defeat. With death. With failure.

Perhaps that last one stings the most, failure. Jesus’ failed. His movement for the Reign of God failed against the might of the Empire of Rome and their puppet government in Judea. When the women, his most faithful disciples, crept to that tomb in the wee hours of the morning, with three very exciting years of following Jesus fresh in their minds, what did it all mean? Nothing. The healings, pointless. The teachings, hollow. The hopes that he inspired—a world free of warfare and corruption and oppression, where Israel’s God reigned in glory again—dashed completely.

The way the writer of Mark ended that gospel is true to human experience 2,000 years ago and true to human experience today. We who search for jobs and cannot find them. We who lose loved ones to cancer. We who don’t know where our next meal is coming from. We who are shackled by addiction. We who have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning. We who watch the news—with stories of young men shot in their grandmother’s yards (state-sponsored violence, perpetrated with impunity), with assaults on public education, you name it—and think, “How could it get much worse?” We who watch the news and say, “That’s the same old story.”

But what you can’t see from the face-value reading of the ending of Mark’s gospel is that this text was heard aloud before it was read on the page. Mark’s community, a generation or two after the events, was used to the version where it ends, “They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” “Well, of course,” someone in Mark’s church would think, “It doesn’t end that way. Of course they mustered their courage and told someone, otherwise we wouldn’t have heard this story and thought it important enough to write down!” And maybe they would, like the seminary student performing Mark’s gospel live, start over another time. Maybe they would go back to the first chapter, “The beginning of the good news…” and retell the story.

Or maybe they would finish the story themselves, but add elements from the tales of the disciples, how they lived with a new sense of power after the empty tomb. How the risen Christ had indeed met them back in Galilee, back where it all started. How they continued Jesus’ movement by establishing churches like Mark’s, where they would tell and retell the story.

Since Easter shares the calendar with April Fool’s Day this year, you know I couldn’t help but work in a joke, so here goes. My niece used to love this one. It used to crack her up.

“Knock, knock…”
“Who’s there?”
“Boo.”
“Boo who?”
“Why are you crying?”

Seriously, though, did you notice how you all knew how to complete the joke? You couldn’t help but respond to “Knock, knock” with “Who’s there?” We were taught to do that. We were taught the pattern and how to repeat it.

It’s a cheesy illustration, but that’s what Mark’s community knew what to do. Like “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, where you get to determine the closing chapter; or cheers between sides of a stadium at a football game; or an improv exercise, they knew to finish the story. The ending was a prompt for them to add their own parts to it.

As each Easter returns, relentlessly, I sometimes wonder, “Why are we here… again?” Why the all the lillies and the candy, the trumpets and the tempani and the glorious, triumphant music? Why all the brightness and joy in the midst of a dark and depressing world? Why is it that we are here, still here, extracting it from its original context, telling this ancient story centuries and cultures away?

And the answer I keep coming back to is that we need the repetition. We need this reminder that, as tempting as it is to give in to dead-end thinking, as tempting as it is to assume our stories are non-endings, we know that, ultimately, in God’s world, that’s not the case. Even if we’re not sure what we believe about this mystery, on some level we trust the Christian witness that life and love will have the last word. Evil does not trump goodness. Violence does not trump peace. Despair does not trump hope. The Reign of God, though it appears in momentary glimpses and spreads in small ways, is ultimately victorious over the empires of any era.

We know on some level that, as Mark’s community did, God calls us to finish the story. God calls us to add to the story of the empty tomb in the “Galilees,” the ordinary spaces, of our own lives.

It’s like the poet Wendell Berry wrote, “every day do something that won’t compute… Practice resurrection.” [3]

I pulled out an old, trusted Spanish language book yesterday, 501 Spanish Verbs. I’m remembering that, when I studied Spanish, I stopped at the preterite. I never learned the imperfect-indicative tense. The book says, “This is a past tense. Imperfect suggests incomplete. The imperfect tense expresses an action or state of being that was continuous in the past and its completion is not indicated.” [4]

As another preacher put it:

“English lacks an imperfect tense to describe action that has begun and is continuing. And that is a shame, because the Easter liturgy is truly written in imperfect tense—call it ‘Easter imperfect’ if you will—for it tells the ongoing story of how the message of the empty tomb is being lived out in the lives of those who believe. That is the tense that we live in these days, and part of our task is to help finish the story.” [5]

If that sounds like a large load to carry, take heart: it’s not all up to us. It’s God’s story after all. But we have a crucial part to play in its unfolding.

“The Easter imperfect.” Not Christ was risen. Christ is risen. Still out there. Still unloosing chains, healing brokenness, forgiving the past, working for justice. Still bringing hope.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!… Christ is risen indeed!

Let’s finish the story.


[1] Mark 16: 8, New Revised Standard Version
[2] Thomas G. Long, “Dangling Gospel (Mark 16:1-8),” Christian Century (April 4, 2006), p. 19.
[3] Wendell Berry, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” (1991).
[4] Christopher Kendris and Theodore Kendris, 501 Spanish Verbs (2003), p. xxiii.
[5] Robert E. Dunham, “Unfinished – A Sermon for Easter,” Journal for Preachers, Vol. 41, No. 3, Easter 2018, p. 24.

Featured image: “The Risen Lord” by He Qi, Vanderbilt Divinity Library.