The End of the Story?

Easter, April 8, 2012, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Mark 16:1-8

All's well that ends well. I'm sure you've heard that, probably you've said it a time or two.  We've been studying the Gospel of Mark since September. Each month we take a close look at just a few chapters. Looking in depth, taking your time to really examine part of the Bible helps you notice things that you might not have noticed before. In some ways Mark is not a sophsticated story teller. His literary style does not show a lot of education and it seems that his favorite word is "immediately." But Mark tells a story that is still alive today. In fact, more than any of the other gospels, Mark really gets the reader to participate in the story, and in the telling of the story. And it's the ending—or perhaps I should say it's the lack of an ending--that makes this version of Christ's life and death have such a strong claim on Christians today. The ending shapes the whole story. In a few minutes I'll explain why.

If you've ever seen a production of The Music Man on stage you'll remember the charming con man, Harold Hill who comes in to River City on the train and diagnoses trouble: with a capital T that rhymes with P and stands for pool. River City is on the verge of corruption and he, Harold Hill has the solution, the magic bullet than will keep the youth of River City from turning evil—a marching band.  His scheme has worked in other communities. He collects the money for the instruments and the uniforms. He "teaches" the boys "The Think System." So they think music without actually ever playing it. Did I mention that Harold Hill is a fraud and a con man?  Good. His scheme in River City does not quite play out as it has in other communities. Harold Hill falls in love with Marian, the town librarian. He befriends Marian's younger brother and helps him get over his lisp. In the play Harold Hill decides to stay in town even after the band uniforms and instruments have been paid for and arrived on the Wells Fargo wagon, rather than skip town with the money. The play ends with a "concert" featuring the band of boys who have only thought music and never actually played it. They gather on stage in uniform and perform
Beethoven's minuet in G. Actually, they play notes that may appear at some point in Beethoven's minuet in G. "The Think System" is no system to teach music at all. But the parents are thrilled to see their boys playing music.  The parents hear the music with rose colored ears and are delighted with
the band that Harold Hill has created for their sons. Harold Hill is a fraud and a con man, but he gets away with his fraud because parents love their children. Presumably he even decides to stay in River City and maybe he and Marian the librarian get married and live happily ever after. It's an ending that works because parents love their children no matter what.

If you've even seen the movie The Music Man, you'll remember a charming con man, Harold Hill, who comes to River City on the train and diagnoses trouble, with a capital T that rhymes with P and stands for pool. River City is on the verge of corruption and he, Harold Hill, has the solution, the magic bullet than will keep the youth of River City from turning evil—a marching band. His scheme has worked in other communities. He collects the money for the instruments and the uniforms. He "teaches" the boys "The Think System."  So they think music without actually ever playing it. Did I mention that Harold Hill is a fraud and a con man?  Good. His scheme in River City does not quite play out as it has in other communities. Harold Hill falls in love with Marian, the town librarian. He befriends Marian's younger brother and helps him get over his lisp. In the movie Harold Hill decides to stay in town even after the band uniforms and instruments have been paid for and arrived on the Wells Fargo wagon, rather than skip town with the money. The movie ends with the band assembled in full uniform and they march through town in a spontaneous parade looking and sounding fabulous. For the filming of the movie the producers hired the University of Southern California marching band and all the instruments they played were custom built. Harold Hill is the drum major of the band and they all march triumphantly through River City.  Harold Hill isn't a fraud at all!  His "Think System" has turned the boys of River City into a precision team of music and sound. The movie ends with a triumphant, feel-good production number.  There's movement and precision and action and the joy and excitement of a well-trained marching band.

The ending makes the movie a completely different story from the play. The ending puts everything that has gone before it in a completely different light.  Endings are really, really important.

Mark's gospel doesn't end. It stops. We know the story: Jesus was abandoned by those closest to him, denied by Simon, who was nicknamed "The Rock." Only at the very end of the story, as Jesus was dying on the cross were "the women" mentioned. The women who had followed Jesus and supported him and his followers. They were the ones who were ready to show the final kindness to Jesus' body at the first light of the morning after the Sabbath.
The women went to the tomb, but they didn't see Jesus. They saw a man who tells them that Jesus has been raised. The man tells them to go and tell Jesus' disciples, especially Peter, that Jesus is going to meet them in Galilee, and here's how it ends, "Overcome with terror and dread, they fled the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, they were afraid was why." [This translation is a combination of Placher's and the Common English Version.] "They said nothing to anyone , they were afraid was why."  That's the last word in Mark's gospel.  One scholar I read said that the ending is either "intolerably clumsy or incredibly subtle." [Frank Kermode]

Now if you look at the end of Mark's gospel, say in the pew Bible, you'll see that there are two different endings. Neither of these endings appears in any manuscript before about the year 190.  And Mark was written around the year 70.  And both of these endings reach a conclusion. Both bring the story to completion. But originally, the story ended with the women, the faithful ones who had supported Jesus and his followers, those who stayed closest after the others had abandoned him, leaving the empty tomb in fear, not telling anyone.

The ending shapes the whole story. The ending changes the meaning of what went on before. Did you notice that Jesus does not appear in the resurrection story in Mark's gospel?  No one sees the resurrected Christ.  The women see a man who tells them of the resurrection. And they don't tell anyone. They don't tell anyone. So how can anyone know about this? How can anyone know about the best possible good news? How can this story be retold nearly 2,000 years later if the only ones who heard it didn't tell anyone? "They were afraid was why."

Clearly, the story of the resurrection, the story that Christ is risen _____ somehow got out. The story found a way to get itself told in spite of the fear and silence of the first visitors to the empty tomb. The experience of the resurrected Christ is shrouded in mystery, but the message of the resurrected Christ is clear.  Go. Tell. The story depends on decisions that we make, the readers of these old, old words, centuries later. The message of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the truth of the gospel is always, and has always been, only one generation from extinction. If no one tells the story it will be forgotten, and if a story is forgotten it dies.

The story isn't so much about what the women saw or didn't see, felt or didn't feel, told or didn't tell. The story is about what is happening to those reading it right now. See the story that Mark told in the gospel didn't stop when the words ran out. The story ends with the text reaching up from the page and handing a baton to us. It's up to us, today, the ones who hear the news that Christ is risen----- to seek after that Christ, in sacraments, as we will in a few minutes, in prayer, in worship and when we're alone.

Have you seen how beautiful the moon has been this week?  As it has gotten fuller and fuller, as its light has spread through thin clouds, as it has shown down on us through the dark sky? Moments like that can be reminders of God's powerful love for us. God's powerful love for the whole universe. Love that
is a gift to us. Love that brings good news of great joy for all people. Love whose story we are invited to believe, share and tell. This is the Lord's doing, it is marvelous in our sight! Christ is risen!