Easter Sunday: Unfinished Business

By Rev. Rick King

Mark 16:1-8

It’s morning. The day after the Sabbath. Daylight. Three women, two Marys and Salome, going to the tomb to finish embalming Jesus’ body. They couldn’t get it done before now, because he was on the cross, and after he was taken down, it was the Sabbath and they couldn’t do any work. So it was left unfinished.

And all the way there, they’re wondering aloud to each other what they’re going to do with that stone over the entrance. But they kept going, and when they got to the tomb, the stone was rolled away from the entrance. Lucky for them. But then they went right in, and there was no body! Things were getting strange.

What they did see, though, was a young man dressed all in white, who said, “Don’t be afraid. I know you’re looking for Jesus, the one on the cross; he is not here; he has been raised.” And then he told them something about telling the others to go to Galilee, where it all started—and that Jesus would meet them there.

Well, they got out of there really fast, but you get the sense they were running from him, or from the scene, or from what he’s telling them. And then the story is over. Just like that.

It’s kind of anticlimactic, on a day like this, wouldn’t you agree? Maybe not the ending we expect—or want. This year, we’re lucky (or unlucky) enough to be reading Mark’s account of the resurrection, which seems really different from the others, and especially because they don’t see Jesus, in Mark. They don’t see anyone, really, except this unnamed young man in white, telling them what to do.

Mark’s account of the resurrection leaves us hanging. We want more than he gives us. It seems unfinished, just like the embalming of the body the women came that day to do. It’s not a Hollywood ending, at all. If you like international films or art cinema, you may appreciate an ending that doesn’t resolve things. Like Inception, No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski, The Shining, Blade Runner, or that classic of the French New Wave, Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.

But even if we like non-Hollywood endings as much as nice, neat resolutions, we’re still faced with the matter of, “What comes next?” We all have to make sense of it, put it together in a meaningful way.

And when it’s life itself, real life, we can’t avoid confronting what our next step is. I mean, that’s why people go into therapy, a lot of times: because they can’t move forward. Or they need to resolve something that happened in the past, some trauma, or a relationship that was rocky. Unfinished business like this can be in the past, such as reconciling with a parent or other relative that we’ve been at odds with for a long time. Or it can be in the future, as it is for these women, who are wondering what the next chapter of their lives, post-Jesus, will be.

What comes next in one’s work life? Is it a promotion? A chance to put your skills and passion to work in a different field? Or is it a matter of reinventing yourself to do a whole new kind of work? And what about the other “passages,” as the therapist Gail Sheehy identified decades ago—the empty nest, or retirement (what does that even look like, anymore?). Churches are having to consider how to reinvent themselves these days, too, because so much has changed.

Somehow, there’s always the matter of, “We’re not done here.” Not finished.

Back to the gospel of Mark, and its ending. It’s not just we who feel it: Apparently, the early church thought it was an incomplete, unfinished ending, too. Look in almost any Bible and you’ll find at least two alternative endings included in Chapter 16, that include appearances of the risen Jesus to match the other three. They’re usually set off in brackets, and often footnoted, to explain that they were added later.

But I want to suggest that Mark’s ending is exactly the right ending for where you and I are today, in this moment in history. Judging from the number of people fleeing organized religion, religion is a lot less helpful when it’s all about nice, neat endings, pat answers, and confident statements—all of which seem more like whistling in the dark.

Frederick Buechner writes about Mark, the writer we think is behind the gospel that bears his name, and says,
“Mark ends his book, as he begins it, almost in the middle of a sentence. There was no time to gather up all the loose ends. The world itself was the loose ends, and all history would hardly be enough to gather them up in….

“Mark’s last word in his Gospel is afraid, and it makes you wonder if maybe the theory is true after all that he was the boy who streaked out of Gethsemane in such a panic. He knew how the women felt as they picked up their skirts and made a dash for it anyway. Wonderful and terrible things were happening, and more were still to come. He knew what fear was all about—the scalp cold, the mouth dry, the midnight knock at the door—but he also knew that fear was not the last thing. It was the next to the last thing. The last thing was hope. ‘You will see him, as he told you,’ the young man in white said (16:7). If that was true, there was nothing else that mattered. So Mark stopped there.”

The ball’s in our court now. It’s our turn. What unfinished business is waiting for us? Is it a conversation we’ve been afraid to have with someone? Is it a new skill we’ve been putting off learning? Is it a destructive habit or addiction confronting us for the umpteenth time, but we might be desperate enough now to change?

Is it being sick and tired of being afraid or alone, and needing to find the necessary “courage buddies” to help us face whatever it is that’s scary or keeping us isolated? Is it events or people who are out of our control, but from whom we feel threat, and wonder what we can do about them?

Today’s message is really the beginning of a series of messages this spring on how to engage the unfinished business before us, and live the resurrection—through actions we can take, attitudes we can adopt, and ways we can find our people, others who are also ready for change, ready to write the next chapter in our own gospel.

And also, ready to discover how the risen Jesus is present NOW, in our time and place. Because Christ IS risen. Risen indeed! Alleluia!