Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Did it strike you as strange, the way that story from Mark’s gospel ended just now?
In the other gospels we find the women rushing to tell the disciples what the angels said, and Peter racing back to see the empty tomb for himself. We find Mary, thinking she sees a gardener in the graveyard, then realizing it’s actually Jesus himself when he speaks her name. We find Jesus appearing to other disciples, too, after his resurrection – in a locked room, on the road to Emmaus, even on a beach where we find him cooking breakfast for his friends after they’d been out fishing all night.
Here in Mark, after the angel’s words “he has been raised,” we just see the women fleeing the scene: “for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8)
It’s even odder in the original Greek, where the whole gospel almost seems to end mid-sentence. Literally: “To no one nothing they said; they were afraid for…” I’ve heard of dangling prepositions; here we’d seem to have a dangling conjunction. “To no one nothing they said; they were afraid for…?” As one preacher puts it, this sounds like “syntax only Yoda could love.” To be fair, Greek can get away with that kind of word order. But a dangling conjunction isn’t required to find Mark 16:8 a strange way to end a gospel. Good news makes terrified women flee the scene? Maybe not the headline you expected today.
But this is the final verse of our Easter text. Please pray with me.
Living God, the Good News of Easter is so wild and wondrous that we struggle to wrap our minds around it. Give our hearts the wisdom to receive that which our heads cannot fully understand. Open us to the power of your resurrection, and help us rise to new life in you. We pray it in the name of our risen Lord. Amen.
I love the way Barbara Brown Taylor plays with the mystery around that abrupt ending of the gospel of Mark:
Did Mark slump over his manuscript at that point, dead from a sudden heart attack? Did a Roman soldier walk up behind him and say, ‘You’re done, son’? …or maybe Mark was simply a brilliant storyteller, the James Joyce of his century, willing to take linguistic risks no one else dreamed of taking. Whatever the explanation, there it is: ‘and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.’
Now if you happened to be reading along in your pew Bible today, you may have noticed this strange ending of Mark’s gospel is actually followed by a couple other endings. In some of the most ancient manuscripts of Mark the gospel ends here at chapter 16 verse 8. But other manuscripts (believed to have come later) include either a shorter or a longer additional ending, offering us ways to resolve that strange original finale.
I find the short ending of Mark quite compelling actually. As Lillian Daniels observes, “the women [here in Mark] … get to be imperfect; they don’t have to have all the answers. They get to be like us, uneasy, frightened, unsure what to say. They have questions, doubts, reservations. And those get to have the last word.”
Thank God, you may even be thinking. Thank God someone else had questions about the wild story the white-robed messenger told the women that day at the empty tomb, a story that sounds way too good to be true. A dead guy alive again? We know how the world works. Resurrection from the dead is a little too optimistic to be believable, thanks all the same. Good Friday? That’s another story. Powerful people lashing out violently against those whose difference they fear - that we see far too often. Our Good Friday vision is depressingly clear. But resurrection?
It’s perfectly understandable that the women didn’t believe God’s messenger at first. It’s hard enough to believe crazy-good news even when things are going relatively well. And when you’ve been slogging through the worst few days of your life? If a beloved friend, a leader on whom you’d pinned all of your hopes, had just been tortured and killed right in front of you? I think any of us would have been hard pressed to believe in that moment that Jesus had been raised from the dead.
If you find yourself - figuratively speaking – fleeing the empty tomb with the women, not knowing quite what to do with the good news of Easter, I get it. Don’t think for a minute I don’t know what a strange job I have, standing up here to preach what sounds for all the world like news too good to be true. But here’s the thing… the good can be true.
You and I are here this morning because no matter how Mark chose to conclude his gospel, the story didn’t end there. Because the women who came early in the morning to Jesus’ grave, and found there a messenger of God telling them Jesus had risen… I mean somehow the fact that he
believed it must have been enough to send them back to their friends and fellow Jesus-followers to share what they’d heard. They may have hesitated; they may not have shared the angel’s words immediately, but clearly they did chose to share what they’d seen and heard. And the other gospels tell us they were rewarded for their courage by seeing Jesus again – the risen Jesus – with their own eyes.
Once those first disciples had been empowered to see the world through new eyes, once they’d seen God wasn’t limited by normal human rules of life and death, nothing was the same again.
Now let’s be clear. Denial isn’t going to cut it. And rose-colored glasses won’t do the trick either. We can’t just sit here today and sing joyful songs and wave our Alleluia wands and pretend all is right with the world. That would be crass when the world is as seriously screwed up as we know it to be. Sooner or later reality would bite us anyway and bring us back.
So it’s important to notice what Mark 16 says and what it doesn’t say. The angel at the empty tomb didn’tsay the women were wrong, that it was all pretend, that Jesus hadn’t really died. He didn’t say the worst thing they’d ever experienced didn’t happen. It did happen, and it must have been as gut-wrenchingly awful as we’d imagine it to be.
It just wasn’t the end of the story.
To see that God didn’t stop working when Jesus died, that good news lay out there beyond the bad news, the women at the tomb needed Easter eyes. And by the grace of God they were given that life-changing vision.
Easter eyes know how bad it can get. But they also know even the worst of the worst cannot disarm God. Believing God’s power is greater than any tragedy, that God is on the loose in the world bringing life to desolate places, Easter eyes are on the lookout for signs of God’s resurrection power.
If you look closely, you’ll see those signs, right there in the midst of the bad news. Too good to be true, you say? But here’s the thing… the good can be true.
For instance, I was reading just this week about entirely dead lakes in India, completely emptied by drought, nothing left but dusty, barren, cracked earth. Those lakes are being restored thanks to the vision of a 26-year-old engineer convinced that cleaning up the man-made messes around them would bring them back to life. The “before” and “after” photos of these lakes are stunning. Sometimes, it seems, just getting out of God’s way is enough; removing messy human obstacles to what God’s good creation was always designed to do.
I watched an interview recently with a young woman living in a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon, an excellent student who’d had to flee her home. Her school was bombed too, and all of her school records were destroyed. She despaired of ever getting the medical training she’d long wanted to pursue, but she’s found new life and purpose as an outreach volunteer with Medical Teams International. You can see her face absolutely light up as she describes her important responsibilities as a health care provider for her neighbors in that refugee camp. Talk about light shining in the darkness, hope breaking through in a seemingly hopeless place.
Right down the hill at our nearby Tiny Cabins village, formerly a Tent City camp, we now see brightly painted homes with front porches and flower boxes, and we hear stories of residents finding community and stability and employment while there… and then moving on to their own apartments and bright new chapters of their lives. It seems new life is breaking out everywhere, even in our own backyard.
We’ve also seen people absolutely riveted by news of a fire-ravaged cathedral in Paris this week, showing us the 850-year-long tradition of Easter worship at Notre Dame is far from over. We’ve witnessed people all over the world feeling a visceral connection, somehow, to that physical structure, a building designed to draw humans closer to God. There was nothing good about the fire; it was awful. But it’s also not the end of the story. I wonder what flames it will fan in the hearts of those grieving its destruction and determined to return it to its former beauty. Where might the ashes in and around that cathedral sprout signs of new life? God only knows. But the God who knows is a God for whom nothing is impossible.
If a quick glance around you reveals nothing but bad news, look closer, and I bet you’ll see it. Good Friday vision may be our default. Stories of death and violence dominate the news. We can’t deny they’re happening. But they’re not the only story. Nor are they the end of the story. Look at the world with Easter eyes and you’ll also find heavenly surprises of love and hope and new life breaking out in unexpected ways.
I imagine Mark knew others of us, too, would need permission to feel a little scared and unsure about the resurrection, like those first Easter witnesses. God’s strange ways can leave us hanging, if not with dangling prepositions or conjunctions, then with dangling hopes and fragile dreams. Or maybe sometimes you’re just plain hanging on by your fingernails to get through the day.
When we’re in a Good Friday place, frightened or hurting, we can’t always see with Easter eyes. Not at first. So I’m glad the women had a messenger of God there to believe for them in their darkest moments. I hope the same will be true for each of you. Someone whose testimony you can lean on. Someone who can believe for you in the moments it’s harder for you to believe. A good-news-bearer, an angel, to say to you: Don’t lose hope. The story isn’t over yet. It gets better. Because Jesus has risen. Which means God’s on the loose.
Even if what God’s messenger tells you in your dark moment sounds farfetched. Even if it sounds too good to be true, I beg you – don’t rule it out. Mark’s gospel shows us it’s ok to own our fears, to admit our confusion. But ultimately, like those first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, I hope you’ll be given eyes to see and grace to believe that even crazy-good news can be true. Maybe someday you can help someone else see it too.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The story isn’t over. In fact, resurrection life is breaking out all over the place.
May God give us Easter eyes to see it!
Elizabeth R. Goodman, “Preaching the Easter texts” in Journal for Preachers Easter 2012 p. 3
Barbara Brown Taylor, “Preaching Easter” in Journal for Preachers Easter 2006, p. 43
Lillian Daniel, “The Weirdly Real Ending of Mark” Journal for Preachers Easter 2013, p. 25