“Unexpected Endings” – Sermon for April 5, 2015

Categories: Sermons

Detail of "Empty Tomb" (painting) by Anne Cutri

Detail of “Empty Tomb” (painting) by Anne Cutri

“Unexpected Endings”

A Sermon on Mark 16:1-8 for Easter Day, Year B; preached April 5, 2015, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister

 

When is the last time you read a book, or watched a movie, or somehow heard a story where you were really, truly surprised how it ended? I don’t mean the sort of artfully-crafted surprise ending, where after you get to it, then you realize all the little bits and pieces all along the way that pointed themselves to that ending… that comment the estranged sister made, that moment when the butler said he was going in to town, that oddly placed piece of art and what you now realize it was hiding. I don’t mean that kind of surprise ending, but rather a really, truly unexpected one, no signs whatsoever that it was coming. The sort of ending that takes your breath away, and leaves you scratching your head or trying to soothe your heart.

Not long ago, I finished a book with just such an ending. Titled Loving Frank, it was the debut novel by writer Nancy Horan back in 2007,[1] and it follows the true-life story of the love affair between the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Chicago-area woman Mamah Borthwick Cheney. The author took the skeleton of historical details available from newspaper articles and a couple of letters, and imagined what sort of flesh might fill out the bones of such a tale.

Throughout the story, as you follow Mamah’s yearnings to break out of her 1910s domestic captivity, and her struggle between the pull of her family and the pull toward the brilliance and passion of Frank Lloyd Wright, there are any number of ways you could imagine the story ending. Except, of course, what actually happened. Not long after settling in to the new home Frank made for them—the famous Taliesin house in southwestern Wisconsin—Mamah and her children, along with a few others, were murdered by a house-servant… gone after with an axe and burned in a gasoline-soaked section of the house. The house-servant seems to have had a psychotic break after having been let go, as well as perhaps a moral vendetta against Mamah.

It really is the sort of ending you had no way to expect. You’d been following the relationship between Mamah and Frank, the reactions of society, the impact on the respective spouses and children… all of that forming the landscape of this story, the fields that seemed fertile for expectation. And then, bam, out of seemingly nowhere, comes an honest-to-god madman, and murder… and thereby the complete elimination of anywhere you might have expected the story would go. It was, for me, one of the most truly unexpected endings I’ve encountered in quite some time. In fact, it was one of those turns so bizarre that you simply couldn’t have made that sort of thing up.

§

We Christians have long found the ending of the Easter story we’ve just heard to be bizarre, too. “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.” They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. End of story. That’s it. How bizarre…

Too bizarre, in fact, for some of the early Christians. Somewhere along the line, a couple of other possible endings to the gospel of Mark were tacked on, because dropping off right there was just too bizarre. But the evidence seems pretty clear that the ending we’ve just heard was, in fact, the original way that Mark ended the story.

It seems just so unexpected, though. You would have no reason to imagine that the telling of Jesus’ resurrection would conclude just with some women running away because they were afraid. Where’s the sharing of the good news? Where’s an appearance of the risen Christ? Where are the rest of the disciples?

“They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” It’s just not how the story should end.

§

Or is it? Is a completely unexpected ending perhaps perfect for the telling of Christ’s resurrection…?

After all, Jesus’ resurrection itself is the ultimate in unexpected endings. It’s simply not what anyone assumed would happen. Not Judas when he betrayed, nor the rest of the disciples when they ran away. Certainly not Pilate, who gave the command for Jesus to receive the Empire’s punishment for their worst political dissidents. And neither the chief priests who played along, nor even the soldier who, as he watched Jesus breathe his last, becomes the only human in Mark’s telling to confess that “this man was God’s Son.” None of them expected the resurrection.

The dead, you see, are simply that: dead. There’s just not much landscape of expectation left after that. There’s a reason we use the term “dead end” to describe a road that does not go through.

Sure, Jesus had said to his disciples a few times that he was going to be handed over, get crucified, and on the third day rise again, but they’d had a hard-enough time accepting even the part about getting killed. How much less would they have been expecting the resurrection part?

Most of us spend our day-to-day lives not expecting resurrection, either, if we’re honest. Improvements? Sure. Things getting better here and there? Yeah, why not. But to expect that which is truly resurrection—new life out of that which was dead, a new future out of that which we thought we’d figured out, a new and unexpected ending out of what we presumed already settled—we rarely actually expect that.

Rather, we expect broken relationships to remain exactly that: broken. We assume the prisons set up for us by anxiety or fear or childhood baggage or adulthood addictions, we assume they will remain, doors locked and bars solid. In our better moments, we might hope for transformation of some injustice or inequality, but rarely do most of us truly expect it. We assume that the way life runs—ourselves, our relationships, the systems, the communities, the world—the way life runs is the way life will run.

But the truth, my friends, is that the power of God does not depend on, or even, wait for our expectations to keep pace. God raised Jesus to new life—alleluia!—when the world least expected it, when he had no life, when he was dead, dead, dead. God raised up Jesus, and God showed-up the so-called powers of this world, right when they thought they were at the height of their control.

The power of God does not depend on our expectations. The glory of God does not wait for our expectations. The love of God does not even abide our expectations. The power, the glory, the love of God is to bring all things to life, all things to new life, all things to resurrected life—you, me, us, this world, the whole creation and cosmos, even. And that is an ending we can never fully expect.

§

Well-known contemporary preacher Anna Carter Florence has said, “If the dead don’t stay dead, what can you count on?”[2] That, sisters and brothers, is the joy and glory of this day… that the dead do not in fact stay dead, by the power of God… that the outcomes we think inevitable in our lives and in our world are not to be counted on, by the power of God… that all we could ever begin to hope to imagine is simply not high enough or great enough or glorious enough to compare to what God has in store for our world… and for us… and for our world because of us.

After all, as the Mexican proverb says, “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”

 


 

[1] Nancy Horan, Loving Frank: A Novel (New York: Ballantine Books, 2007).

[2] Citation unknown.

Leave a Reply