Choose an Ending

Isaiah 25: 6-9/Mark 16:1-8                 4.1.18

When our sons were into reading chapter books, I remember their keen interest in reading the books where you could choose your own adventure.  It was a whole series that was very popular in the late 1980s and the 1990’s.  You came to a certain point in the plot and then you could decide the next steps the main character would take and then be directed to skip to the next part of the story, depending on what you chose.  The process continues throughout the book, providing a wide variety of possibilities for the endings, depending on the reader.  These books invited re-reading again and again, for the story could be different each time.  The idea of choosing your own adventure drew in reluctant readers and encouraged young people to be creative in shaping the stories they read.

When you think about it, the gospel of Mark kind of operates like a choose your own adventure book at the end. The very earliest, and therefore described by scholars as the most reliable, copies of the gospel end at v. 8, kind of with a cliffhanger.  The women have come to the tomb expecting a body to honor with burial spices and they are surprised.  More than surprised.  Shocked.  Startled.  Alarmed.  They are met by a man who informs them that the one they are looking for is gone, he has been raised.  They are told to tell the others to meet Jesus back at home in Galilee.  And it ends like this:   “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.”  Boom.  End of story.  What kind of an ending is that?  Is that what Mark has been working up to for 15 chapters, with all his stories about Jesus and his message of the kingdom of God?  What about Jesus’ instruction that the good news must go to all nations back in chapter 13?  What happens next?

From at least the second century, if not before, people have wondered about this ending.  Could it be what Mark intended?  Or was there another page that got lost somewhere?   The end of the scroll got frayed?  The last page fell out?  When you compare Mark’s ending to the endings of the other gospels, you find he is missing any story of a real encounter with the risen Jesus.   There are no post-resurrection appearances.  There is no description of what to do next as followers of a Messiah who was dead but now is risen.  In the early church, some folks were so unnerved by the lack of a good ending to this gospel that they added an ending of their own.  You can go further in your pew Bible or your Bible at home and find two optional endings that are included in most Bibles as appendices.  You might say that you can choose your own ending.

The first is very short, and full of vocabulary that is clearly not from the pen of Mark the gospel writer.  It quickly changes the silence of the women. It goes like this: “They promptly reported all of the young man’s instructions to those who were with Peter.  Afterward, through the work of his disciples, Jesus sent out, from the east to the west, the sacred and undying message of eternal salvation.  Amen.”  What?  Mark does not write like that.  It sounds more like a preacher trying to bring the loose ends together.  Or maybe someone who is trying to lift the disciples out of the mud of confusion and misunderstanding they had seemed to wallow in for the entire gospel of Mark, now triumphantly describing their follow through once Jesus had risen.

The longer ending seems to be a collection of ideas borrowed from the other gospels and from Acts, all of which were written after Mark.  There is a description of several post resurrection appearances of Jesus, but nowhere is there an appearance to Peter, nor any mention of Galilee, so it doesn’t really seem to connect with where Mark left off at all.  The longer ending does provide a commission for the disciples (Go into the whole world and proclaim the good news to every creature.) and tells us that they do go out to proclaim the message everywhere.  It appears that this ending is a call to faith and mission by a church at least a generation or two down the road, likely added in the 2nd century.

In both of these endings, we get a glimpse of how some early Christians understood the resurrection.  They chose an ending that made sense to them.  And now that is what we must do as well.  Now we are the ones who continue the story.  Remember back at the beginning of the gospel of Mark, when we have no story at all of the birth of Jesus, but simply these words:  “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son.”  Could it be that the entire gospel is just the beginning of the story and the ending is up to the readers in any time and place?  The ending is up to readers like you and me? Mark does not wrap up all the loose ends, but instead leaves them up to us to pick up where he left off.  Maybe it is not an ending at all, but a brand new beginning.

For you and I it is not Galilee where we meet Jesus.  We have to fill in the blank:  He is going ahead of you to __________.  Where is it that Jesus is going ahead to meet you?   You choose your own adventure with Jesus.  Where will it be?  Your place of employment?  Your place of retirement?  Your college campus?  The place where you are being called to serve as a disciple of the risen One?  Could it be your own kitchen or your dining table?  Where does Jesus meet you?

One place Jesus is visible is in the fellowship of the church family.  I saw him alive and well on Thursday evening in our fellowship hall as members of our family from 1 year old to 80 plus years old gathered to sing, to pray, to eat, to remember the words and work of Jesus.  I heard tables erupting in song as family members identified favorite hymns and songs around their table.  I heard laughter and watched connections being made, and perhaps new relationships being formed.  Jesus met us at the table, in the conversation, in the sharing of ideas and experiences and music and food.  I watched you welcome in people you had not met, people who were looking for a welcoming community, people you know well and people who you previously knew by face only.  One participant shared with me the next day that she felt a sense of peace after being with brothers and sisters around the table.

The story is not over at all.  The story continues.  And you have a role to play.  It is our responsibility to continue to practice resurrection going forward.  I am borrowing the idea from the last line of a Wendell Berry poem entitled Manifesto:  The Mad Farmer Liberation Front. It is a guide for living with meaning and not in the rat-race that our society has created.  He gives a series of commands…  listen to one section:

So friends, every day do something that won’t compute.

Love the Lord.

Love the World.

Work for nothing.

Love someone who does not deserve it…

And jumping to his final line:  Practice resurrection.

As we ponder how we might practice resurrection in our lives, I offer you the words from a Catholic Sister of St. Francis at the Franciscan Spiritual Center outside of Philadelphia.

There is the choosing life
that happens each morning
with each foot touching the floor with the words Thank You.
There is the staying in the present moment
when we’re yearning inside to cling to a more comfortable
“the way it’s always been”.
There is the claiming victory
taught to us by Jesus, the Christ,
on one amazing Sunday morning
but also each day we allow this Jesus
to live and rise within our heart.

Each time we truly allow ourselves
to encounter a brother or sister we practice resurrection,
each time we affirm another,
put another’s interest above our own
or even walk gently along side someone
for whom there is much pain,
in each of these moments we
practice resurrection.

The daily rising to our better self
to a more compassionate and loving heart
is, for me,  what it really means
to practice resurrection…

What do you think it means to practice resurrection?  For me it is practicing looking for life even when death seems to have won.  It is practicing looking for hope even when it seems like the end.  It is practicing bringing life and bringing hope.

When you make something a practice, it becomes a habit.  When it becomes a habit, it becomes a part of your life, your outlook on the world, a part of your very being.  As Jesus’ followers, we become people who practice the resurrection.  That means we trust in Christ through the dark days, through the down times.  That means we make choices about how this story is going to end based on our understanding of how it all started.  With Jesus.  With people who could not stomach his way of bringing in God’s kingdom.  With humans who used violence but were really agents for God’s big picture plan of salvation and love and grace.

In a conversation with a church member this week, I was struck by his commitment to his faith despite great odds.  He could choose to be forlorn and diminished by his health challenges, but he chooses to practice resurrection, to practice faith, to trust that he is not going it alone.  The story continues, yes indeed.  For our entire life is an adventure, an adventure with Jesus, the resurrected one, the risen Lord.  Alleluia!  Amen.

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