Dead End?

Mark 16: 1-8

© Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
Catonsville,  Maryland

Resurrection of the Lord/ 16th April 2006

Everyone loves a good story.  And every good story needs a good ending.  You could say that’s what makes a story great, isn’t it?  We are wired with what the literary critic, Frank Kermode, once aptly described as a “sense of an ending.”[1]  There’s something within our egos that desires completion.  There’s something within us that resists the tension caused by unresolved chords, we want resolution.  There’s something within us that pushes for resolution.  The same is true with our relationships, we don’t like living with unresolved conflict, even though we inevitably do, it doesn’t make us happy.  We want everything to be “right,” to fit together, to work properly, for everything to be done “decently and in order (1 Corinthians 14:40)” as we Presbyterians would say.  As we were taught in seventh grade English, a proper sentence should not end with a dangling preposition.  This tendency or proclivity shapes the way we construct the narrative structures of our lives.  There’s something within human nature that hungers for resolution in the plot line, the question marks removed, and everything wrapped up in a neat package, so that we can leave the theatre (or worship) with a good, warm feeling.  This might be what we want, but it’s not necessarily what we get – or what we need.

In fact, we could say a good story doesn’t wrap all its elements together in a neat package with a ribbon.  Think of Greek tragedies, Shakespeare’s (1564-1616) tragedies. “Romeo and Juliet” continues to grip us, yet everyone is pretty much dead on the stage at the end.   Think of the stories of Chekhov (1860-1904) and Ibsen (1828-1906).  This year’s Academy Award for best picture, the movie “Crash,” is a gripping testimony to the power of a tragic story to touch our hearts and minds.  Real stories, authentic stories that ring true to life, that imitate lives of flesh and blood, of human pathos and suffering, do not find easy resolution. They’re complex and messy.   If they don’t include complexity, conflict, open-endedness, they don’t ring true because life is not like that, even though we might hope to wish otherwise.  And maybe Christians are especially guilty of this, we who are generally too Pollyannaish, even on Easter, maybe especially on Easter that what we proclaim doesn’t ring true because it is detached from what people are experiencing, flippantly proclaiming Easter joy when most are living Good Friday lives.  The stories of our lives, including Christians, are weighed down with questions; they’re not all that simple. Maybe our obsession with “order,” desire for resolution, and a conflict-free existence (some might say, boring existence) is because we are doing everything we can to keep the questions and unknowns at bay, staving off the anxiety that comes from not knowing how it will all end.  Life is full of dangling prepositions.

In Mark’s gospel, the resurrection is not the resolution to the greatest story ever told.  In fact, it raises more questions than it answers.  Did you notice there’s no encounter with the resurrected Jesus here?  Mary, Mary, and Salome worrying about who will roll the stone away, encounter not Jesus, but a “young man,” not an angel (some scholars think this is an oblique reference to Mark, the gospel writer), who says, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised; he is not here.”[2] See for yourself, the space is empty.  “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”  That might sound like an ending, but it’s not because the women aren’t relieved by the news, instead they’re deeply troubled by it.  Mark’s Greek says they were “traumatized” and “ecstatic,” filled with terror. They fled.  The first witnesses to the resurrection were failed disciples and fled.  They were told to pass on the news, but Mark tells us “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”   The women are just like the disastrous disciples, everyone fled.

And that’s how the Gospel According to Mark ends, in fear and with a dangling preposition!  This is how the story literally reads in Greek, “To no one anything they said; afraid they were for …”   The earliest manuscripts of Mark’s gospel end this way, a nonending.  Later versions of Mark’s gospel contain two additional endings, the rest of verse 8 and then a longer ending of verse 9 to 20.  For many decades scholars believed the original ending had been lost, which, they assumed,  because it didn’t included an encounter with Jesus (like the other gospels do), plus, for one cannot end a sentence in Greek with a preposition.   But opinion is changing.  Point of fact, it was not uncommon for tragedies in antiquity to end upon a note of departure.[3]  The sudden ending makes us uncomfortable and maybe that’s the point.

The late Don Juel, professor of New Testament for many years at Luther and Princeton seminaries, tells the story of one of his students who memorized all of Mark in order to do a dramatic, one-person telling of the story.  He decided to go with the scholarly consensus about the ending.   After speaking that ambiguous last sentence at the first performance, he stood awkwardly, shifting form one foot to the other, the audience waiting for more, waiting for closure, waiting for a proper ending.  After several anxious seconds, he said, “Amen!” and made his exit.  The audience relieved, applauded wildly.  Reflecting upon his performance he concluded that by providing his audience with a satisfying conclusion, his “Amen!” actually betrayed the intent of the text.  So at the next performance, when he reached the final verse he paused for half a second and left the stage in silence.  Juel said, “The discomfort and uncertainty within the audience were obvious, and as people exited…the buzz of conversation was dominated by the experience of the nonending.”[4]

The nonending, if you will, gets you talking, causes something to stir with you, gets you thinking, forces you to do something.  The nonending throws the story back upon the reader or hearer.  What are you going to do about it?  What does the young man say to the women?  You will see him again in Galilee (not Jerusalem, as the other gospels say).  What are they supposed to do there when they get there? Tell his disciples (all of whom have fled) – especially Peter, the coward, make sure he knows – that Jesus will meet them there.  What’s so special about Galilee?

That’s where Mark’s gospel begins, in Galilee. “Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God” - that’s where Peter and the others became disciples.  The same disciples, who in time fled, every one of them, just like the women at the tomb.  Mark’s gospel is circular.[5]  It’s as if Mark is saying to the reader, you didn’t understand what Jesus was doing the first time through the gospel, but now that you’ve been to the empty tomb, go back and read it all again in light of the resurrection – read it all in the light of the resurrection.  Let’s start this again.  In other words, the story isn’t over.  Mark wrote this gospel to his church, to any church, saying – you whom Jesus has called to be his disciples, you who gather in Jesus’ name – as you walk again (and again) to the cross, will you stay with Jesus or will you flee again?  What’s your response to this story?  Mark’s gospel is not a triumphal victory, neither is it tragedy, but something else.  “It’s an unending challenge to follow anew.”[6]  Will we flee or will we follow?  Will we run from the resurrection and all that it means in fear or will we follow?  It’s as if Mark is saying to us – you complete the story, show us how the story ends.  Does the story continue in us or do we make it a dead end?   Will you testify resurrection?

Several weeks ago one of our members, Paul Patterson, Jr., traveled with a group of local Presbyterians to Mississippi to help with the recovery efforts there.  Paul Patterson has been effusive in his sharing of his experiences, overwhelmed by the extent of the disaster and awed by the power of God bringing hope out of chaos.  He showed me a photograph of a plywood panel along the side of a road that had these words spray-painted on it:  DEAD END.  A warning to what lies ahead.  Paul saw it with a different eye, as disciples are prone to do.  It was poignant and ironic for Paul as somehow symbolic of the entire situation in the Gulf Coast.  Many are wondering, is it a dead end?  Many people there are at the point of desperation who want to flee from life in terror and fear.  What do you believe?  What would you say?  Paul recounted that it’s common to see large piles of debris in front of devastated homes – a family’s worldly possessions, waiting to be collected and hauled away, somehow symbolic of people’s lives.  Paul shared with me that at one point in the midst of his mission work, he felt that the group should have Communion at one of their services.  There was a minister there who could lead the service, but they didn’t have a chalice or plate, not sure how they were going to do it.  Then someone noticed in a pile of debris:  a plate, a goblet, and a wine decanter.  They pulled the items from the rubble, cleaned them off and used them to celebrate the presence of the Living Christ.  Out of the rubble, devastation, and garbage heaps of our lives come these signs of resurrection.  Dead end?  Disciples know the answer.

[1] Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending:  Studies in the Theory of Fiction (Oxford University Press, 2000).

[2] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man:  A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1994), 397-401.

[3] Myers, 399.

[4] Account cited by Thomas G. Long, Christian Century, April 4, 2006, 19.  Cf. Donald Juel, Beverly Gaventa, Patrick Miller, eds. The Ending of Mark and the Ends of God:  Essays in Memory of Donald Harrisville Juel (Westminster John Knox Press, 2005).

[5] Grateful for Tom Long’s reading of this text.  See also John Dart, “Unfinished Gospel?  Mark’s enigmatic ending,” Christian Century, April 18, 2006, 28-32; and Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Cross, The Last Week:  A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’s Final Week in Jerusalem (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 198.

[6] Myers, 401.