by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
16 April 2006
A week ago Saturday our congregation was busy. It was one of our Habitat for Humanity Build Days this spring. So we had one group working on a home building project. Linda, Beth, Brock, Rusty, and Chuck worked on the house, while Russ and Glenn fixed the meals. I heard that they had a great time.
A smaller group of us went to OSU to attend their gay student organization’s conference for other regional student organizations. Paula Sophia was the keynote speaker, and did a stupendous job. Judy Hey and I went to support Paula and to interact with the students.
On the way home, Judy was talking about how much she would like for more college students to attend our church. Among her reasons she listed, “I want them to know that it’s okay to be gay.” I told her that in my recent experience on college campuses, that the students know that it is okay to be gay, they just don’t think it is okay to be a Christian.
In recent months I’ve interacted with students on a variety of campuses, including my alma mater Oklahoma Baptist. What I have discovered is that many are atheists or agnostics or have otherwise abandoned the church. Their comments express a sense that the church is irredeemably broken and harmful, even some of the OBU students.
After I told Judy these things, she said, “I guess we could say, ‘Come to the gay church where it is okay to be a Christian.’”
And I love that! In fact, I plan to use it as a slogan, even in some of our publicity. Why do I love it? Because it encapsulates our challenge. Our challenge is to reclaim Christianity itself. To reclaim it as a faith of extravagant grace, radical inclusion, and relentless compassion.
The ending of the Gospel of Mark reminds us that being a Christian isn’t easy. The women in this story are left with a choice, to go and tell or to run away in fear. They choose the second. Now, don’t be hard on the women, because all the men have run away already.
This is a puzzling ending. Most bibles print two alternative endings. One is called the short ending and adds these words:
And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter. And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.
The longer ending is the one found in most older translations of the bible. It includes the very disturbing passages about drinking poison and handling snakes that most faith communities have viewed with a healthy skepticism.
All of the earliest manuscripts of this Gospel end at verse eight, with the women running away afraid. That later generations wrote two alternate endings reveals an uneasiness with this ending. And the ending is shocking. There is no appearance of the risen Jesus. No comforting Mary in the Garden. No doubting Thomas. Instead the oldest gospel ends with an empty tomb, a mysterious young man, and the women running away afraid.
Even our Christian worship is uncomfortable with this text. The lectionary text assigned for this Sunday, which falls within the year that focuses on Mark, is actually taken from John. Rarely do you encounter this puzzling, disturbing, and unsatisfying ending.
We human beings, particularly we Americans, like endings with closure. I think that may be one of the most overused words in contemporary discourse. “Closure.” We want everything to have closure. We insist that unless our relationships have closure that we just can’t move on. What even is closure when it comes to a relationship? I surely don’t know. Clearly having an ending is helpful, but we’ve almost made it into a right that should be protected by the Constitution.
In our lives, in the stories we read, in the movies we watch, in our tv shows, we prefer that everything be explained, all the loose endings tied up, the plot brought to its natural end. We like our heroes riding away into the sunset or for the couple to get together happily or for the bad guys to get their comeuppance. An open ending unsettles us.
I love the Tom Hanks movie Cast Away, but plenty of people didn’t. It is so unlike the standard American film. The romance with Helen Hunt is set up in the early moments of the movie. Then Hanks spends the bulk of the film alone on an island, his only company the volleyball Wilson. For 45 minutes there is no dialogue in this movie. When he is finally returned home years later, Helen Hunt is married with children. There is no resolution of the romance.
At the very end of the film, he delivers the package that he has held for years. Then he encounters a woman on a crossroads in the middle of nowhere in West Texas. She explains each geographic location that the various roads lead to, and then she drives off. We are left with Tom Hanks standing in the middle of the crossroads looking at the various roads ahead, then the film ends.
When I saw this in the theatre a man behind me said to his wife, “That’s a stupid ending.” I wanted to turn around and say, “That’s the perfect ending, and if you don’t realize it, I pity you.” Fortunately for me, I didn’t say anything.
The reason that man and so many other people didn’t like the movie is because there was no resolution. He didn’t get the girl. His life wasn’t restored. And most significantly, it just ends with him standing there.
But I think it was the perfect ending. In the opening scenes, it is established that Tom Hanks’ character is the sort of person who has life planned out, everything organized, he is in control, and he is strictly governed by his sense of time. On the desert island he controls almost nothing. It is difficult to plan and organize, and time is the most abundant commodity he has.
At the end he is standing at a crossroads, which is clearly symbolic. His life is laid out before him. He can make a fresh start. Nothing is planned. Nothing is organized. He is free to make a variety of choices. Which choice he makes isn’t important, what is important is that he finally has learned to live free.
People aren’t satisfied with this ending of Mark because it is also unsatisfying – nothing is wrapped up. But much like Cast Away, the openness of the ending is why it is the perfect ending. The openness of the ending offers us a choice and a challenge. It leaves us wondering if it is okay to be a Christian, like Judy said, or whether we will run away in fear.
Let’s look at a couple of things in this text. First, it is the women coming to Jesus’ tomb to anoint him. These women have been there traveling with Jesus and the twelve all along, but they’ve been in the background, silent. We know that more than the Twelve traveled with Jesus, and these women seem to represent a group of female disciples.
All of the Twelve have run away. And one, Peter, has denied Jesus. There is an irony in Peter’s name, which means Rock. Peter is supposed to be the solid foundation on which the church is built, but this solid foundation has responded to Jesus’ arrest and death by allowing his fears to control him.
The women, however, attend the crucifixion and now come to the tomb. Unlike the men, they aren’t allowing their fears to control them. This reminds me of Steel Magnolias when all the men leave the side of Shelby’s deathbed and only her mother M’Lynne is there to the end.
So, these women reveal a greater courage than the men. But they also show that they too have failed to see, that even they do not understand what Jesus was teaching. On the way to the tomb, they make it clear that they expect Jesus’ body to be there; they assume he is dead. These women have not understood his teaching that he would be resurrected.
Maybe they haven’t understood because in the Jewish religion the resurrection was something that was supposed to happen at the end of time, when God’s reign begins. Yet, from the very beginning of this gospel Jesus has been announcing that God’s reign has already begun. The heavens have ripped open and God is set loose in the world. Repeatedly he has criticized the disciples and the religious authorities for failing to see that we are now living in God’s promised kingdom.
If God’s reign is here and now, then that means that there will be resurrection from the dead. So, if everyone had been paying attention, really understood, and really believed, then they shouldn’t have been surprised that the tomb was empty.
But they are. They see the empty tomb and the mysterious young man and they are afraid. The young man tries to comfort them and instructs them, “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.” Now there is a lot in that sentence.
The women are to give the message to the disciples and Peter. Peter is singled out. Peter is singled out, probably, because he is the one who has denied Jesus. The statement of the young man is a sign that Peter is forgiven, that he is still included. And this is a message we need to remember. When we don’t feel worthy, when we don’t feel blessed, when we think we’ve screwed everything up, come back to these words, “and Peter.”
The young man says that Jesus is going ahead of the disciples. Jesus is still leading, Jesus is still showing the way on the journey. Once again they are invited to follow.
And where are they supposed to go? To Galilee. Galilee not only means the specific place, but it is a symbol. Galilee is the beginning. It is the place where Jesus’ ministry started and where he performed so many of the signs and wonders and actions of compassion, grace, and inclusion. It is the place where 5,000 are fed. Where the lepers were healed. Where the demons were exorcised. Where Jesus reached out to Gentiles and tax collectors. Where the boundaries that exclude people were broken down in favor of the outcast and the oppressed. The message is that the disciples are to go back to this place and begin again by faithfully living as if the reign of God has fully arrived.
If they make this journey, then they will see Jesus. Just like elsewhere in the Gospel of Mark, sight not only means our physical eyesight, but also includes our spiritual insight. If the disciples will continue to faithfully follow the path, then they will finally gain the spiritual insight and understanding that they currently lack.
All of this is what the women are to go and tell. But they don’t. They are overcome by fear and run away and the story ends.
At the end of this story none of the characters are left to go and tell the world this good news. But that is why it is the perfect ending. Let me explain.
This gospel was written not just to tell a story; it was written to create new disciples. The author’s goal was to inspire generations who didn’t know Jesus personally to also live as faithful followers of his message that God’s reign has begun. So, when the gospel ends, we realize that we, the readers, are the ones left to go and tell. We have heard the story. Hopefully we have seen and understood Jesus for who he is. Hopefully we have recognized the full meaning of his ministry and teaching. Hopefully we understand that this is a good news of grace, compassion, and inclusion.
And hopefully we’ve released whatever fear this may inspire. To live faithfully into this message of grace, compassion, and inclusion means to give up our self-centeredness. It means that we must break down the walls that we put up to protect ourselves from other people. It means that we can’t be controlled by our fears but must live with abandon the life that Jesus calls us to.
If we’ve done those things, then it is our job to go and tell. We are the ones standing at the crossroads. We are the ones who have to figure out if we are going to run away in fear or follow faithfully back to Galilee. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done, because even Peter is invited. So, we are all invited.
Why are the women afraid? Why do they run away? Why might we find it easier to abandon the church instead of reclaiming that it is okay to be a Christian? I think the women flee because they do finally get it. They finally realize that God’s reign has begun. They finally understand everything that is being asked of them. And for a moment, at least, they are afraid of the costs.
Nelson Mandela, the great hero of the apartheid struggle in South Africa and the first democratically elected president of that country, said the following profound words:
Our worst fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?” Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God: your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some of us, it is in everyone, and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
This is why the women are afraid. They are afraid to make manifest the glory of God within them. It is a power that frightens them, because if they admit that this power and glory is there’s then they are called to a radically new life.
This is where the Gospel of Mark leaves us. Are we up to the challenge of reclaiming Christianity as a faith of extravagant grace, radical inclusion, and relentless compassion? Will we be too afraid to live into our potential as children of God? Will we run away in fear? Or will we grasp hold of the power and the glory that are ours and follow Jesus back into Galilee where God’s reign is breaking forth and all things are created new?