If it’s not okay, it isn’t the end….

April 5, 2015: Easter Sunday

The Gospel According to Mark 16:1-8

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

Good Easter Morning! Christ has risen! Alleluia!….oh it feels good to say that again!

The Gospel reading that we just heard has been slightly redacted from what scholars believe to be Mark’s original ending. That is to say it was added at a later date for…..some reason which is beyond the purview of this sermon. But this is where I think Mark’s Gospel authentically leaves off:

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.

In it’s original form, here ends Mark’s Gospel. And all we can say is, Holy Cow! ….followed closely by: Alleluia! Christ has risen! But again, Holy Cow! What a way to end a Gospel. It’s not hard to see why Hollywood has never chosen Mark’s text for a feature film. Can you imagine the initial production and promotion meeting:

We’re here today to discuss how we’re going to deal with the ending of this movie. It is not going to play in Peoria. The focus group said the ending was too depressing. There’s no Good News here. Everybody dies or fails, and the thing ends with these wayward women who suddenly show up in a perfectly fine story of courage and fortitude only to muck it up by appearing stupefied and scared. What kind of ending is that? And who are these women anyway? Where did they come from?

 And we have to admit, the director has a point. The ending is…sort of depressing. And where did these women come from? We know their names. But except when Mary anoints Jesus at the start of the passion narrative, this is really the first we have heard of them. However apparently, they have been tending Jesus all along…..serving him in the same way, and with the same verb, that the angels served Jesus in the wilderness….. in the same way, and with the same verb, that Jesus himself came to serve and not to be served. These women have served Jesus; a verb that is never, ever, in Mark’s Gospel, applied to any one of the twelve disciples, the ones officially named and noted, for over 2000 years, as the only true apostles of Jesus, the ones hailed reverently for having had the courage and faith to put down their nets and follow our itinerant, homeless Savior.

But as it turns out, apparently, these women did the very same thing. They put down their own lives and followed. But they did it without any fanfare. Without any press. Without any official credit. They too left the comfort and familiarity of their homes, the company and social status afforded by their families, and they followed Jesus out into an unknown world where they had no……social standing. No rights. No social capital. No respect in the public world; I am guessing that 2000 years ago, women made even less than today’s rate of 85% of what men make. They had no business following this single preacher man all over the country side…even for the purpose of serving him and his world-shifting ministry.

And they did it all without a single mention, until now. At the very end of our story. Where their almost singular claim to fame, aside from the fact that they alone were there when they crucified our Lord, is that they were terrified and afraid by the sight of the empty tomb. But who wouldn’t be? And not just afraid…..they were Tell-Tale-Heart terrified!…traumatized….shaken to their core. The Greek words used here are the words used by Jesus on his knees in the garden of Gethsemane.….words that convey serious terror and existential angst. Who are we?!!!! And what is happening to our world?!!!! And so after all they had sacrificed and all they had done to serve Jesus – and by doing so, serving the world that God so loved – they are saddled with sacking, what Matthew and Luke and John managed to salvage……a hopeful, if not happy, ending to this Jesus story.

But not Mark. Mark has forgone the hope-filled Hollywood ending with the resurrection narrative, in favor of the….harshly relational reality show with an empty tomb and no inkling of where Jesus has gone. Mark’s ending does not deliver our salvation with an: Alleluia, Christ has risen! No, Mark leaves us hanging …..with the women who have served as faithfully as Jesus has served…..and who seem, likewise, to be getting a very raw deal for their truly faithful service….. No alleluia’s. No gratitude. No reward for their faithfulness. Here, in the shadow of the Passover feast, the celebration of God’s liberating deeds through history, these faithful Jewish followers of their beloved Rabbi feel lost. Their hearts are broken and their nerves are shot.

It’s a terrible ending, because maybe it’s not the end. Maybe instead of the end, it is the penultimate chapter that shows us the price of discipleship….the price we might likely pay if we are willing to pick up our own crosses and follow Jesus, following in the faithful footsteps of these holy women. Maybe this existential grief and confusion and fear that they feel are the price of the sort of service that Jesus preached….that Jesus lived. I think Mark’s ending feels like a terrible ending, because it’s not the end. As my grandmother used to say, there’s no need to worry darlin’, I have faith that everything will turn out well in the end….and if it does not turn out well, it is not the end. This is not the end.

I think Mark intended a sequel…..and it begins with where we take this Gospel from here. Mark has left the ending, the next chapter, to us. Because that’s how Mark’s Gospel rolls…his Gospel, her Gospel, no one really knows who the author was or even if it was really a man. But whomever the author, in Mark, we, the readers, are invited to flesh out and complete the story from our own contexts and perspectives, from the very first chapter. Mark always keeps the detail of his stories to a minimum. We are invited to fill the rest in for ourselves. We are the only ones whom the Gospeller seems to trust to understand who Jesus really is, and why he is here. How we hear this Gospel is a huge part of its message. We can see it as we watch the twelve disciples, who are supposed to be in the know, constantly get it wrong; we see that they only seem to understand what is happening from a very narrow perspective. But the reader gets the full monty. Mark shows us the whole picture. All along Mark has imbued the reader with special access to Jesus’ ministry and message. And so, we actually have a central role in the interpretation of this Gospel.

Likewise, this story of pains-taking-and-giving discipleship could not possibly be completed with any pat ending. Which is to say that this story ends, or continues, in as many ways as there are disciples to follow. And so unlike any of the other Gospel’s, Mark’s ending begs a lived response. Unlike any of the other Gospels, Mark’s ending is not a show and tell, but a go and do. It’s not an ending….it’s more like an invitation…..leaving the door open and the light on for the next traveler who ventures along this way.

It’s like the old joke about the pastor who announced to his parish “I have good news and bad news. The good news is we have enough money for our new furnace. The bad new is it’s still out there in your pockets.” Likewise, Mark’s ending is still in our hands. The good news is the tomb is empty. God has conquered death. The bad news is we’re next in line…..next in line to make all the difference by choosing that crazy and treacherous road less travelled by all but Jesus and his followers….the road of utter service to and for others, which, believe me I am sorry to report, is very nearly guaranteed to lead to some pretty earth shattering pain and suffering.

And so here we are on Easter morning with an empty tomb and an invitation. An invitation to follow the lead of these faithful friends who have risked their everything to serve as their Jesus taught them to serve. It’s an invitation that I imagine Jesus offered to them, and they offer to us, in words similar to those articulated by the wonderful Episcopal priest and poet, Alla Renee Bozarth. She is one of the Philadelphia Eleven, one of the first women to be ordained in the Episcopal Church by a group of rogue bishops, in 1974. Her own courage and service, and that of her compatriots in that revolutionary act, made it possible for female priests like me to stand here before you today.

That milestone of women’s ordination was no easy accomplishment. Those first women at the opening of that ecclesiastical tomb, suffered mightily; they were  rejected, abandoned, and threatened….even with death. But their courage and faithfulness, and that of the women and men who stood by them, serve us still, 40 years hence. For their service stood for me, and us; stood in the face of “tradition” …..the “tradition” that said that Jesus’ disciples were all men and so only men were fit for ordination. But the women in this morning’s Gospel say otherwise. And here I stand. This is how Gospel service works…..generation to generation.

And so on this glorious morning of the empty tomb, I invite you to hear this poem as an invitation issued directly to you. An invitation to and for you, particularly, from the women who followed Jesus from Galilee to the cross to the tomb….an invitation to rise up and add the next chapter to Mark’s Gospel, from where ever you are with what ever you have to bring.

The poem is called Paschaltide.

Pack nothing.

Bring only your determination to serve and your willingness to be free.

Don’t wait for the bread to rise.

Take nourishment for the journey,

But eat standing,

Be ready to move at a moment’s notice.

 

Do not hesitate to leave

your old ways behind – Fear, silence, submission.

Only surrender to the need

Of the time – to love justice and walk humbly with your God.

 

Begin quickly, before you have time to sink back into old slavery.

Set out in the dark.

I will send fire to warm and encourage you.

I will be with you in the fire, and I will be with you in the cloud.

I will give you dreams in the desert to guide you

Safely home to the place you have not seen.

I am sending you into the wilderness to make a new way

And to learn my ways more deeply.

 

Some of you will be so changed by weathering and wanderings

That even your closest friends will have to learn your features

As though for the first time.

Some of you will not change at all.

 

Some will be abandoned by your dearest loves

And misunderstood by those who have known you since birth, and feel abandoned by you.

Some will find new friendship in unlikely faces,

And old friends as faithful and true as the pillar of God’s flame.

Sing songs as you go, and hold close together.

You may at times grow confused and lose your way….

Touch each other and keep telling stories.

Make maps as you go, remembering the way back from before you were born.

 

So you will be only the first of many waves of deliverance on these desert seas.

It is the first of many beginnings – your Paschaltide.

Remain true to this mystery.

Pass on the whole story…..do not go back.

I am with you now and I am waiting for you.[1]

Onward!

Alleluia!

Amen.

© April 2015, The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

[1]This poem is from the books, Womanpriest: A Personal Odyssey by Alla Renée Bozarth, revised edition 1988, distributed by the poet;

Stars in Your Bones: Emerging Signposts on Our Spiritual Journeys by Alla Bozarth, Julia Barkley and Terri Hawthorne, North Star Press

of St. Cloud 1990; Accidental Wisdom by Alla Renée Bozarth, iUniverse iUniverse 2003; This is My Body: Praying for Earth,

Prayers from the Heart, by Alla Renée Bozarth, iUniverse 2004 and the audio cassette Water Women by Alla Renée Bozarth, Wisdom House

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