“When the Ending Is Not the End”

Easter Sunday – March 27, 2016

Mark 16.1−8

Welcome to Easter morning – what some have called “the defining place and moment of Christian space and time”[1] And if you find this idea of celebrating resurrection strange, you are not alone. It’s a very strange thing to celebrate – not just because Mark’s gospel leaves us hanging at the end – not just for the same reasons my Jewish neighbors used to ask exactly what eggs and bunnies have to do with Jesus.

It’s strange to our culture, and not just because we all struggle to wrap our heads around a dead man living again. Outside of Christmas – or history class or dinosaur books – how often does anyone remember or celebrate something that happened thousands of years ago? The distant past is strange.

Strange, too, because this story, that took place so long ago, was about the future, which is strange to us, too. Think of the post-apocalyptic tales – that I happen to love – like the Hunger Games or The Martian – all stories where humans have really messed up at some level. The Iroquois code of considering the seventh generation has become more associated with earth-friendly laundry detergent than actually planning for the future of the seventh generation from now, not to mention the seventieth generation. It seems too grim.

Strange, because today our culture is obsessed with the present. We turn our obsession into gadgets that make everything and everyone present to us. I need an iPhone, so that when I am not with children, I can still be present in an emergency, or when I am not at church, I can still be present for the same reason. We need wifi or internet access because it makes the world present. Some of us need our entire music collection and podcast subscription always within an earbud’s reach; some of us need a full medicine cabinet, to make sure health care is within reach. So that we might live in the “real time” present, we subscribe to news updates, stock quotes, traffic reports and emergency alerts. Even the past is present through photographs and keepsakes; the future is present through planning and instructions and insurance policies. Those of us who opt out or can’t afford these things effectively live in a different world. Obsession with the present looks different for different generations – but it’s the same thing; it’s how advertisers get us – they want us to think we won’t be complete without this new thing in our presence. It’s how some politicians find our cultural vulnerability, by making us think we won’t be able to control the present moment.

This obsession – with all of us in some way – makes Easter very strange. It even makes God into a problem for us. We can’t understand why we can’t have God right here, with us, at the press of a button, click of a key, scan of a code, or swipe of a plastic card, the way we have everything else.

In a world where the present is everything, God seems strangely absent. People who are used to everything showing up on the screen – to googling answers to life’s significant questions – want something that fits our categories and tells us exactly what we’re supposed to do – and stops all this nonsense about mystery and elusiveness and resurrection.

But God doesn’t work that way. Especially not in the resurrection. Especially not here in Mark. Mark’s gospel account of the resurrection is the oldest, but it is seldom read, because what is absent stands out: No tangible proof or youtube footage equivalent of Jesus’s resurrection. No “just the facts” wikipedia account of how the event changed history. The male disciples never get to hear the story – the women are speechless in terror and amazement. Jesus himself never shows up. The original gospel itself ends in midsentence, reading something like – “To no one anything they said; afraid they were for…” Later editors tried to fill in the final blanks, but the first Easter story left them. The ending of the text was not the end of the story. It’s the message of the messenger, to the women and to us, that gives us what we need to know to see how the story continues. The message refuses to play to our rules or obsessions – but tells us exactly what we need to know.

When the three women return to the tomb that morning, the messenger says three things to them. First, a message about the past: You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He is not here. Whatever the women think, whatever they do from this point on, God has already been at work, in ways beyond their control, that do not fit the logic of their plans, but God’s work is real, physical, changing how the world works, all for the better. Even if the women – even if we – do not see Jesus, we can see the empty tomb, the sign of his resurrection, a sign that all this has happened

Second, a message about the present: Go, tell his disciples that he is going ahead of you to Galilee. God is not finished. Jesus’s work is incomplete. Jesus is going ahead, moving on, cutting a path, showing the way, and you, you are supposed to follow him. Where? To Galilee – to the place where you started, to your hometown, to the every day, wherever you live and move and have your being. Jesus is still moving and calling you and all his friends back to your place and time. Jesus is on the move, and it’s right here and now, in the present.

Third, a word about the future: There, you will see him, just as he told you. God’s work in Jesus, this resurrection, it’s not just about Jesus, it’s about you. God’s not just changing Jesus, God is changing you, what you believe is possible, what you always assumed about the world, what you are willing to give your life for. It’s a promise: You will see Jesus for yourself. You will find yourself in the presence of the One whose earthly presence comes as close to God as anyone. This is it.

Friends, these days this last part of the message can seem awfully hard. For those concerned about future generations… about economic hardships, about the climate, about wars and violence that seem ceaseless, about the ways we discriminate against each other. It can be easy to confuse the craziness of the world with the absence of God. In a world of immediacy, where if something is true, not only do I need to be able to see it, I need to be able to click on it, to reduce to 40 characters or fewer, it can be easy to think that Jesus has left the building.

Yet the message here is not “everything is going to be wonderful.” The message is that Jesus is going ahead, that if Jesus has left the building, it’s only to prepare the way for us. The tombs of this world, while they may be starting places, are not the dwelling places, that in the midst of our everyday hardships, the craziness of this world, Jesus has already been there, and our job is to look for him. The past, present, and future come together in this one message. Doesn’t give us all we need to know, may leave us with more questions – “he is risen” – where have I seen a sign? “He is going ahead of you” – how do I follow? “You will see him” – but where? How? Doesn’t tell us all we want to know. The ending is not the end of this story!

There’s a genius in Mark’s not telling us everything he knows. Keeps us from making the story into just another story – keeps us from turning how God works into just another equation, keeps us from making God’s presence with us into just another power we turn on with a remote control.

My job here is not to force you to believe the message, but to remind you that this story is still about us, his followers, that as beautiful as our sanctuary is today, Jesus is not here, at least not just here, but Jesus is still on the move. He is still going ahead of us. As we give, as we pray, as we sing, as we share our lives and go from this place, may we all have eyes to see him.

[1] This morning I have borrowed from another more heavily than usual, from Sam Wells, former dean of the Duke University Chapel, who wrote two pieces, an article, “He is risen!” in the April 12, 2000 issue of The Christian Century and a sermon of the same title, preached in the Duke Chapel on April 16, 2006.