Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Radical Renovation: Choose Your Own Ending

April 12, 2009
Easter Sunday
Radical Renovation: Choose Your Own Ending
Mark 16:1-8
*I am indebted in my Lenten preaching preparations to the book Radical Renovation: Living the Cross-Shaped Life by James A. Harnish.

In my late elementary years, I discovered “choose your own ending” books. You begin reading to set the stage of the story. You are even a character in the story. You read along, and at some point you have to make a decision. Do you take the door to the left or continue down the hallway? Do you follow the advice of a nice person you just met or just ignore their call and go on your way? So you “choose your own ending”, making your first choice, guessing where it will take you next. “Turn to page 13” it says by your selection. You flip the pages quickly at first and you breathe a sigh of relief when you find paragraphs on page 13. The story continues. That’s the joy and thrill of a “choose your own ending” book, that you make choices and find new adventures, new pathways. The story just keeps going and going. That is until finally you make a choice that directs you to, say, page 46. As you turn to page 46 and peak, there you see it. A few brief sentences and then the words you didn’t want to read, taunting you with their bold lettering. “The end.” Sometimes I went back and chose again, because I wanted the story to continue.

Mark’s Gospel seems to be a “choose your own ending” gospel. Most scholars agree Mark’s gospel originally ends where we did this morning. 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. (Mark 16:8) That is not the powerful Easter ending we are used to, is it? Mark has the people confused and fumbling. They don’t even know what to do next. They are all locked up in fear. The ending they have chosen seems unfinished, like a renovation project that was never completed, like one of those home-repair projects that never seems to be done. It is a ragged ending at best. A nonending, really. There is nothing of what happened next. The women do not answer the call to share the good news. There is nothing of the meaning and purpose of the empty tomb or the raised one. Just this ragged, nonending of a gospel.

Perhaps that’s why for centuries people have been trying to “choose their own ending” for Mark’s gospel. There is an attached shorter ending that is a wordy theological benediction of sorts. And there is an attached longer ending that is a recording signs and sightings of Jesus, greatly influenced by stories of the other gospels. Both of these endings try to complete the project. They both attempt to neatly wrap up the work of Jesus, to give it some meaning and purpose beyond the missing body, to have someone go and tell the good news, to find some closure to the story.

But Mark’s Easter story is a dangling nonending story, and in that, it speaks to some of the inconclusive renovation projects in my own life. Perhaps you are like me at some level. You start some important work and no matter how hard you try to tie up the loose ends, to make all the pieces fit together neatly, to bring closure, you keep ending up with a lot of loose ends in your life: broken relationships that don’t ever find healing; fears that continue to influence our lives; problems that remain unsolved; doubts that defy simple answers; temptations that return with disturbing regularity; visions that I may not see accomplished; dreams that I may not see fulfilled. No matter how hard we try, there seems to be these unfinished renovation projects in our personal lives.

The women came to the tomb that day with an unfinished project. They were prepared for death. They brought spices to anoint the body for burial. They believed the insurmountable barrier of the rock would block them from their project. There was only death and brokenness. There was only fear and frustration and terror.

But that first Easter morning, they discovered something different than what they had prepared for. They discovered that the barrier between life and death had removed. They discovered an empty tomb. They discovered that Jesus had gone before them. They discovered that Jesus was leading the way. They discovered that they were at a “choose your own ending” point in their lives. They discovered that a different project awaited them.

The good news of Mark’s Easter story, in its original ending is not that we are given conclusive evidence of the resurrection. The good news is not that there is a closing argument that nails down the verdict of what happened to Jesus. The good news is not even that the women do the right thing, because they do not go and tell like they were instructed to do. The good news is that we are given hope.

The gospel writer speaks of a “young man” dressed in white. He sits at the edge of the tomb as if he’s been placed there to direct the people who will most surely come to the grave. When they do, he speaks a word of hope to them. That is all he has to offer, hope, but that is something powerful! He says to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. … But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ (Mark 16:6-7) The hope isn’t inside the tomb. Hope isn’t in the place of death. It is not in the place of broken dreams & shattered expectations. Hope is out ahead of the disciples. It is before them. It is on the journey yet ahead of them. Jesus has gone before them and they must choose the ending. They choose whether or not to leave the place of death and brokenness to journey to the place of hope. They choose whether or not to follow the risen Christ to hope.

The late William Sloane Coffin, former pastor of Riverside Church in New York, one Easter morning told his congregation that there was nothing sentimental about Easter. He said… Easter represents a demand as well as a promise, a demand not that we sympathize with the crucified Christ, but that we pledge our loyalty to the risen one. (Living the Truth in a World of Illusions, pages 70-71).

Resurrection demands our participation, like a “choose your own ending” book calls us to participate in the unfolding story, like early Christians tried to write Mark’s gospel with their stories. We participate in writing the ongoing story of the resurrection with our very lives.

Giacomo Puccini was a great Italian composer who gained international acclaim with La Boheme and Madama Butterfly. He began his final opera Turnadot in 1920. Before he was able to complete it, he was hospitalized with throat cancer and died. Franco Alfano, another composer, took on the task of completing the opera. The first performance was in Milan 17 months after Puccini’s death. Arturo Toscanini, a great conductor of the time, held the baton for the performance. The opera was performed beautifully. When they reached the point where Puccini’s work had ended, Toscanini abruptly stopped the performance. He laid down his baton, turned to the audience and said, in Italian, “Here the opera ends, because at this point, the maestro died.” He turned and walked away from the podium. The curtain came down and the stunned audience went home with the incomplete opera haunting them. The next day the orchestra and performers returned to the stage and completed the opera with Alfano’s ending, and since 1926, it has always been performed this way. (From Radical Renovation: Living the Cross Shaped Life by James A. Harnish, page 57-58)

Resurrection begs us to pick up the baton and finish the performance. We do that by bearing the good news for our time, by being a construction worker on Jesus’ crew in the ongoing renovation of our broken and hurting world. We do that by loving as Jesus loved, attending to the healing needed in our world, walking alongside of the lonely, comforting the grieving, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. Resurrection calls us to participate by renovating our world into a home fit for the Risen Christ to take up residence: a world where love is more prevalent than fear; a world where children are safe; a world where the outcasts are welcomed; a world where the left out are included; a world where there is no them but only us!

Resurrection demands us to finish the story with our story!

Mark’s dangling nonending of the Gospel offers an invitation to us to complete the resurrection story with our story. It begs us to allow our lives to become living witnesses to the presence of the Risen Christ, and to carry the Easter word of HOPE to the broken and hurting corners of our lives and our world. Mark’s nonending begs us to participate it the radical renovation God is doing, to construct with Jesus a kingdom here and now that is the kingdom of God.

Mark’s gospel may be a ragged nonending, but it begs for us to “choose our own ending”. May our lives complete the Easter story!

Rev. Becky Jo Thilges, Lead Pastor
Homestead UMC, Rochester, MN

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this - the pastor of my church also made an analogy with Choose Your Own Adventure books in his Easter sermon this year!