Sermon Easter Sunday 2021 Mark 16:1ff Rev. Betsy Hogan
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.
That's it. It's the end of Mark's Easter story and the end of Mark's gospel. Early on Sunday morning, the women go to the tomb to anoint Jesus' body where it's buried, the stone's been rolled back, an angel says "don't be afraid, he is risen", the women are nevertheless terrified, they run away -- and that's the end. Amen.
The actual original end of Mark's gospel, the way he actually wrote it. And the early Christians hated it. Hated how it left everything hanging. So what did they do? They just added to it. Wrapped it all up in a nice bow, and they actually did it twice.
The first time, the "shorter ending" of Mark, with just a couple more sentences that basically said "And then Jesus appeared, risen, to the disciples and everybody rejoiced!" -- and then, when that still didn't seem like enough, with the "longer ending" of Mark of a few extra paragraphs in which Jesus appeared, risen, to the disciples, and chatted them up for a while.
Much more fitting, the early Christians thought, as a proper way to end the story -- much clearer and tidier and obvious. Not just the vague proclamation of "Jesus is risen" but the delightful clarity of "and look! Here he is!".
And we get it! We get why they added those bits. Because vague uncertain endings are tough -- they leave us hanging, we don't really know what to do with them, we have this perpetual need for "closure", for any loose ends to get tied up in bows.
Or at least, we usually do. Because sometimes, in fact, when reality around us is vague and uncertain, and the prospect of achieving any sort of "ending tied up in a bow" appears frankly quite remote...
It can actually be a bit of a gift – this weird sudden ending of Mark – because it's Easter in all the ways – Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! – but that same strange unsettled unfinished feeling we might be feeling in our reality is in the story too. It's actually quite reassuring.
Which is why, last year, when according to the lectionary cycle of readings I should have preached on Matthew's Easter Story... I preached last year on Mark's Easter Story.
In my backyard, into a camera, still getting used to it, in those first few weeks of the total lockdown. When it was Easter, absolutely -- but none of us had any clear notion at all how long this pandemic would last, or how it would unfold, or how we were going to get through it, or anything really at all.
I looked back at that sermon, and in it I wondered if maybe this would all last until June. It was Easter and that was real, but it was unsettled. More of a promise trusted than a promise felt. Like that sudden ending of Mark, when the women hear the news that Jesus is risen, but then what? None of the beautiful "closure" the other gospels provide. It's like it was more of a promise trusted than a promise felt.
For the women at the tomb, of course, that unsettled time between HEARING the good news and FEELING the good news – it didn't last long. It was so short, in fact, that Matthew and Luke and John just rush right through it. They don't even pause.
But Mark – Mark stays there. He sits there. He ENDS there. Not that he doesn't proclaim Christ is risen, because he does. It's Easter at the end of Mark's gospel, absolutely.
But at the same time, it's almost like he knows that when faithful people translate the Easter story into the fundamental conviction of our faithfulness – that beyond death and despair there is ALWAYS new life and hope –
When we translate the Easter story into that essential promise – sometimes for quite a long time it's more of a promise trusted than a promise felt.
So why does Mark end his gospel the way he does? Biblical scholars have been debating possibilities for centuries. But maybe it's just that simple. That Mark, writing for a Christian community that was quite aware that after the women discovered the empty tomb they DID see Jesus risen and FELT the full rejoicing of the Easter promise –
That Mark also knew that sometimes the space between despair and hope, between fear and rejoicing, between shattered and restored, sometimes that space is long. The tomb is patently empty but it's all a bit unfinished. Maybe Mark just wanted to be reassuring.
I think we were living in that space last Easter. The vast majority of Canadians are STILL living in that space. But for us, I think, THIS Easter we can honestly say that it feels like we're getting close. To the end of that space, and putting the pieces back together, and being restored, renewed, resurrected into fullness of life again with one another.
It's been long and it's been slow, and as it was for the women at the tomb it's been frustrating and infuriating to have our witness ignored or simply dismissed as "an idle tale" – because of COURSE Atlantic Canada's got almost no cases, because "no-one lives there" –
But as Easter dawns again, we know that it's been love relentlessly embodied in our care for each other, day after endless day, that's brought us through. For over a year, like lowkey Easter, the promise trusted. Knowing that it WOULD be felt – Just love one another, Jesus said. And we have.
So it's not pure and it's not perfect, but it's not last year. It's this year. It's Easter. We have reason to hope, we can feel the anticipation, we're ready. Thanks be to God. Amen.