Sermon Easter Sunday 2024 Mark 16:1ff                                        Rev. Betsy Hogan

It was either the BEST series finale ever, or the WORST series finale ever. The famous -- or infamous -- ending of the epic decade-long tv show the Sopranos.

When, in the middle of the Soprano family just sitting in a diner, looking at the menu, figuring out what to order – the screen just cut to black. Soundtrack stopped – nothing.

Except, of course, the sound of millions of people flying off their couches and shrieking at their tvs. Because, did the network cut out? Did the tv die? Are you kidding me with this??

Turned out, in fact, it was neither. That was the actual ending. Done. Abrupt. And the debates began about what it meant. And was it terrible? Was it magnificent? Or was it, weirdly, kind of both?

What everyone could agree on, however, about that ending of the Sopranos, was that it was a shock. It was… jarring. Uncomfortable. Just way too uncertain. Because was that it? Was there more? And a huge number of people absolutely hated it.

Which is kind of not surprising… Because we’re really not good at uncertain endings, are we, as members of this human family. It is so much easier, and clearer, and more comfortable, and such a relief when things are wrapped up beautifully and perfectly and above all obviously.

No confusion, no uncertainty, no weird feeling of incompleteness or being left hanging -- we do like our endings tied up in bows and obvious.

Which is why, when early Christians looked at the ending of the gospel of Mark -- the first gospel to be written down, and the one on which the other three are based -- which is why, when early Christians looked at the ending of the gospel of Mark, those eight verses that we just heard, they did not like it.

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.

That's the actual original end of Mark's gospel, the way he actually wrote it. Like the ending of the Sopranos -- just boom, done.

And the early Christians hated that ending of Mark. At least as much as a whole lot of people hated the ending of the Sopranos. Too quick, too confusing, just done like that. So when it came to that ending of Mark, the early Christians? They just added to it. Wrapped it all up in a nice bow, and twice, actually.

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 then 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.

But the fact is, understandable early Christian additions aside, the way Mark ended his gospel is actually the way Mark wanted to end his gospel.

And he wouldn't have characterized his ending as vague, or uncertain, or incomplete, or anticlimactic -- in fact, as far as Mark's concerned, he's just proclaimed the Good News!

Jesus is risen! Boom, that's it, it's a proclamation, done! 

As far as Mark's concerned, "Jesus is risen" is exactly the right place to end the story. Because ultimately, as far as Mark's concerned, it doesn't matter what the disciples did, or saw, or heard -- It doesn't matter what the disciples said, or where they went, or who they told --

It might be soothing, of course, to us: to our desire for "proof", such as it is, or to our need for a happily-ever-after hugs-all-around neat-and-tidy "ending" to the story --

But once Mark has proclaimed that Jesus is risen, he doesn't feel the need to prove it -- like "and then Jesus appeared to this one and that one, and ate fish and walked through a wall and said Peace be with you" -- 

Once Mark has proclaimed that Jesus is risen, he doesn't feel the need to show us how each of the disciples reacted when they saw him -- "and then this one fell on her knees, and that one touched his hands and his side" --

As far as Mark's concerned, once he's proclaimed that Jesus is risen, what all the disciples get up to in response is completely beside the point. 

The only thing that matters is how WE respond. To this proclamation. Jesus was crucified, he died, he was buried, all was lost, it was the end -- and then it wasn't the end. 

Because here's the good news, Mark says to us: Jesus is risen. So... over to you. Do with it what you will.

It really is that open, that much of an invitation. Which makes it, in some ways, this real ending of Mark, actually kind of lovely in its so-called unfinishedness. Because ultimately, sure, it's nice, it's affirming, it's helpful, in the other gospels when Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene, when he appears to the women, to the disciples, and they recognize him and they're overwhelmed and there's much rejoicing --

But in some ways those longer endings, for us now, they’re almost too perfectly tied up in a bow. And do they actually prove anything in any sort of empirical way? They really don’t. They don’t empirically get us a whole lot further than Mark’s straight-up proclamation. They make it a story -- it happened then, it happened a long time ago. It's not like he's going to walk in here right now.

One of the mums of our congregation once said to me "I think I've confused my children trying to explain to them how Jesus died and then rose again on Easter" -- but the fact is, is there any way for that NOT to be confusing???

The Easter appearances in the other three gospels, they're SO perfectly complete -- Jesus is risen, he turns up, the disciples see him, everybody's good! The story, all tied up with a bow.

But should something as objectively bizarre as resurrection really get tied up with a bow? What we get from Mark’s original ending instead – “Listen, Jesus is risen. Over to you.” --it may not be tidy, it may not be ‘helpful’, it may not be pleasantly unconfusing – but at least it’s real.

At least it reflects in some small measure the seriously difficult reality of reconciling the notion of resurrection -- someone being raised from the dead -- with our actual experience in the world. 

And at least it reflects in some small measure the seriously difficult reality of reconciling our actual experience in the world… with the notion that anyone whose life and teachings embodied love and non-violence and reconciliation and forgiveness…  wouldn’t in fact have been doomed from the start.

When Mark leaves us there, beside an empty tomb with Mary and Mary and Salome, it isn't a picture-perfect tied-with-a-bow ending, but at the same time it's kind of where we always are. Which is kind of lovely for being real. We just get the words, we just get the proclamation, not laden down by content. Just Jesus is risen and now it's over to us. Do with it what we will.

And if our instinctive response is to stand there with our mouths agape, well -- that was pretty much the instinctive response of Mary and Mary and Salome too. Until, of course, they turned tail and just fled.

But frankly, that's to be appreciated. Not just their entirely human response but the fact that Mark dares to leave the women, to leave us, there. In the midst of the honestly visceral weirdness of it.

With no compulsion to describe or explain or fill the moment with content so we’ll know how to react.

He just leaves us there. With the shock of a sudden blank screen that’s deliberately provocative. Because what does it mean? Risen in spirit? Risen in body? But Mark’s not interested in feeding us details. He’s not interested in shaping how we get our heads around it because the point isn’t getting our heads around it.

Instead, the point is just feeling it. The straight-up weirdness of this bizarre entrancing revelation that – wait, what?? That in fact there might be a lot more going on with the movement of God’s spirit in this old world than we’ve ever realized.

The point is just to feel it. The willfully naïve, joyfully dancing DEFIANCE of it.

Because that feeling of hearing, “Jesus is risen” – that’s the degree of weird and confusing discombobulation of everything expected that it takes to actually believe that the powers that be won’t just crush anything in their way. To actually believe that ugliness and violence won't have the last word. That selfishness and greed won't have the last word, that the worst of humanity’s instincts don’t have the last word. 

That feeling of hearing “Jesus is risen” -- that’s the degree of baffled incredulity it takes to actually believe that there are more people who care than there are who really just don’t. That there’s goodness and it’s real. That hoping is justified. That peace can be made and justice can be built. That it’s God who has the last word, always. 

Easter is defiance – of tidy endings and orderly closure and the limits of what we might rationally expect. It just says NO to the questionable satisfaction of everything tied in bow. 

And instead? There’s a lot more going on with the movement of God’s spirit in this old world than you realize, Easter says to us. 

So don’t be afraid. Amen.