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The Song that Never Ends

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

August 19, 2018
Mark 16:1-8

A Reading from the Gospel of Mark

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 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.” 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.


After a summer of reading through the stories that build the Easter Vigil service on the Saturday night of Holy Weekend, it seemed only appropriate to us to end that story — the story of God’s salvation writ large, told from the first day of Genesis through to the parting of the waters through to the people in the wilderness and the valley of dry bones through to the very promises of Isaiah that John read last week, the whole story of God contained in these nine readings and what better way to end that story than with the story of Easter morning itself, the story to which that vigil builds, the capstone ending to the whole story of God, Easter morning, the women come to the tomb, the stone is rolled away. A young man dressed in white comes to greet them — you are looking for Jesus who was crucified; he is not here, he has been raised. And the women do what any reasonable person would do in this situation. They run away, terrified, and they said nothing to anyone. The end.

Let’s just admit that this is a terribly frustrating way to end the story. You and I have heard this story enough times and we know how it’s supposed to end. The Gospels vary in their specifics but the common thread is familiar enough, I mean, at its basic level, the story of Jesus rising from the dead on Easter isn’t properly supposed to be over until Jesus himself shows up which is a plot point substantially missing from Mark’s Gospel. And yes, if you’ve got your pew bible open, Mark does continue, and Jesus does make an appearance, but every inch of our best modern scholarship is convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that those additional verses are later additions meant to smooth over what you and I are sensing to be a fairly abrupt conclusion. When Mark says “they fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid,” full stop, you can feel the ground disappear underneath your feet like Wile E. Coyote gone off the edge of the cliff. And then you start falling. That’s all, folks.

I’m willing to grant some leeway. Finishing a story is hard work. You have to pay off all the characters. You have to tie up all the loose threads. And you have built up such expectations. In my freshman year of college one of my good friends was obsessed with the television show Seinfeld — every Thursday night was appointment television, and very often I watched with him. I liked Seinfeld, but he was all in, and then that spring came the series finale. If you were watching television in the spring of 1998 you may remember this was a big deal. Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer end up on trial, and witnesses against them include bit characters from throughout the run of the show, and famously the entire series ends with the four of them locked in some county jail left to torture each other until the end of time, and my friend was livid, I mean, how is this possibly any way to end a story? But at least it was an ending. This is something different.

If you were watching television in the summer of 2007 you will join me in a different trip down memory lane. I was obsessed with the Sopranos, HBO’s long-running drama about a mob boss and his family. Every Sunday night was appointment television, as it had been from the moment it came on the air, until the Sunday in June of 2007 when it was time for the series finale. As it turns out I was on vacation at the time, but I was not about to let something like that get in the way, and our rental house had HBO — no internet, but HBO, and so I settled in just me and television to watch this landmark finale. The question in the air of course was whether or not Tony Soprano would survive the hour — presumably not, all these stories end in death — and then in the final moments of the show, Tony and his wife pull into a diner; Tony flips through the jukebox and starts playing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing”; their son AJ comes and joins them; they order some onion rings; their daughter Meadow is outside trying to parallel park; Tony seems to be checking the folks in the diner like maybe one of them is the hit we’ve all been waiting for or maybe this just the paranoia he lives with; and then Meadow comes through the door and Tony looks up and halfway through a beat, halfway through a note, with no cue, with no sound effect, with nothing, it just cuts to black.

Nothing.

Like everyone watching, I assumed that the cable had gone out. I assumed something had broken at our rental home. I assumed that something at HBO had gone awry. I assumed that someone at the HBO mothership who was losing their job right at that very moment. Without internet access with which to check my profound shock, I just sat there, like everybody else, for ten seconds of shocking black, until the silent credits started to flash on the screen, during which everyone watching assumed everything possible except for the seemingly impossible scenario in which this actually was the end, not with a bang, not with a whimper, just with a cut, just in the middle of a thought, just —— “they said nothing to anyone, for they were terrified.” —— And in the ten years since that finale aired, volumes have been written attempting to dissect those closing shots, attempting to find within that episode or within that scene hints of what the resolution actually was. Novel-length internet essays exist to prove to you that Tony was shot right there in that moment or that the onion rings symbolize some heavenly banquet or that he was dead already and the whole thing is a vision or whatever interpretation you’d like someone to create for you. Someone on YouTube has already done it.

The temptation is to explain it. Maybe the young man dressed in white is really Jesus himself, or maybe those following verses really are the story as it happened. I’m sure where on YouTube you can find good arguments for both. But the truth is, it just ends, like all of a sudden Mark doesn’t have any more words, like the sentences aren’t sufficient to carry their own weight, like the story itself bursts its own boundaries. In a Gospel in which the tomb has been ripped open, so too has the story itself been ripped open; New Testament scholar Donald Juel writes that in this moment “Jesus is out, on the loose, on the same side of the door as the women and the readers. The story cannot contain the promises.” In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus promises his return, but these words can’t contain it; these sentences can’t contain it. Juel continues: “Jesus has promised an end. That end is not yet, but the story gives good reasons to remain hopeful even in the face of disappointment. The possibilities of eventual enlightenment for the reader remain in the hands of the divine actor who will not be shut in — or out.”

So perhaps this text is not so much an abrupt conclusion but rather some sort of strangely-shaped opening. A doorway. A window. Some puncture in the seal that would otherwise contain God in these pages and keep us safely on the other side — no wonder the women are terrified. Sopranos creator David Chase has kept famously silent about the meaning of his own abrupt conclusion except to say that it “raises a spiritual question” which I take to mean some insistence, some force, some story unbindable by the basic elements of sound and camera. A crack in everything. But here at the empty tomb I think we find not so much a spiritual question but rather a spiritual declaration, a spiritual manifesto, a Gospel that insists that the story we can tell and the story we can understand is not complete; it can never be complete; it can never wrap up nicely; it can never tie up the loose ends; it can never fade smoothly to black because it is God’s story that is bigger than we are and more durable than we are and more powerful than we are and all we can see of it is this abrupt crack in everything but as Leonard Cohen says that’s how the light comes in.

All of which means that what we are hearing today on this improbable August Easter Sunday is not the conclusion of a story. We are not gathered to tie up the loose ends. It is rather precisely the opposite: we are gathered to proclaim the incompleteness of a story, the incompleteness of our story, our familiar story, a story filled with violence and a story filled with suffering and a story that ends with death — all these stories end in death. But not today. Not this day. Today we proclaim that violence will not win the war because the story of God is bigger. Today we proclaim that suffering will not last the night because the story of God is bigger. Today we proclaim that death will not survive the morning because the story of God is bigger because there is a crack in everything and it starts with a tombstone. Today we proclaim the great victory of a God who will not be shut in or out. Today we proclaim Christ is risen, a promise so impossibly large that no words can do it justice, and yet here we stand,

Christ is Risen!

He is risen indeed!

Christ is Risen!

He is risen indeed!

Christ is —