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Suspended Chord

April 9, 2012

“Suspended Chord” Mark 16:1-8 Easter B © 4/8/12 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

The seven demons who once possessed Mary Magdalene had given her seven different personalities, which came out depending on what entity had the upper hand at the moment. They ranged from hard-partying and loud to reserved and demure, each with her own name. One of the personalities somewhere in the middle of that spectrum happened to be extremely organized, to the annoyance and amazement of Mary’s friends, who wondered how she could possibly manage to arrange her pantry so neatly according to size, color, and freshness.

When Jesus rid her of her psychic mistresses, Mary nevertheless retained something of their abilities, like a residue in her mind. So, even though she was no longer obsessive about it, she could still put together a great party or event or figure out how to do things in priority order and accomplish a task. Salome and the other Mary therefore put her in charge of preparations for going to the tomb.

However, Mary was just as distracted by recent events as the others, so one important detail slipped her mind: who would roll away the heavy cover stone on the entrance to Jesus’ tomb? It was so large and awkward that even the strength of three women was not going to budge it more than a little. So, their mission seemed in jeopardy.

Their concern turned out to be unnecessary. When they got to the tomb, they found the stone rolled to one side in its grooved track. But there was something else that sent a shiver up their spines. Inside was not a corpse, but a white-robed, vibrantly alive figure. Dumbfounded, the women listened while the apparition revealed to them the purpose of their visit and the glorious futility of it. Jesus, whom they sought, was not in the tomb. He had been raised.

And if they wondered where he was now, they only had to go to Galilee. Back to the region where Jesus and his disciples had grown up and ministered. Back to their homes. There they would see him; he was going ahead of them. Not here in the tomb, but out there, in the world, among the living. These who had come on one mission now had another calling. These women who had come to perform a final act of service to a dead friend and teacher now were to proclaim the word that Jesus was alive, going before them. The disciples, who had left Jesus and run away; Peter, who denied he even knew Jesus; they themselves, these three, with their feelings of grief and anxiety—all of them could hear and rejoice in the message of Jesus’ resurrection and presence.

Having heard such a message, though, the first witnesses of the empty tomb did not go and tell the news. Mark reports that, distressed, terrified, afraid, they said nothing to anyone. And on that note the gospel most probably ended, quite literally in the middle of a Greek sentence. Like a suspended chord at the end of a musical piece, the strange conclusion that is no conclusion leaves us hanging, tense, anxious for resolution.

Other Christian writers, later on, feeling uneasy with a gospel ending in silence and fear, made various less than successful attempts at finishing Mark’s sentence. I imagine them as rather like those writers and audiences who want a happy ending at the end of every movie, no matter how tacked on and unnatural it feels.

If, however, the evangelist meant to leave us hanging, what are we to make of this scene of mute terror? I think at one level the fear is the normal, expected response to an encounter with the holy, with the mystery and action of God. People in Scripture are always alarmed at the sight of an angel figure. I would be! And I suspect you would, too. Maybe this text is in part a reminder that the power of God is nothing to be trifled with. We don’t blithely waltz into the presence of the Creator as if we were best pals and there were no danger.

I love what Annie Dillard said in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, making up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning…. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

Dillard forcefully reminds us of both the danger and the promise of the power with which we deal, which we encounter on this resurrection day. We are dealing with a power so vast it can create a universe, so amazing it can raise the dead. In our overly familiar contemporary culture and religious scene, where we’re on a first name basis with people we just met and God is our buddy, maybe this story comes as an important corrective. The first emotion an encounter with the divine evokes is not joy, but fear.

We are tempted to manage such mystery out of our lives and out of the gospel because it makes us uncomfortable. But what are we missing if we do that?

The late scholar Donald Juel once told the story of one of his students who had memorized the entire Gospel of Mark in order to do a dramatic, Broadway-style reading before a live audience. The student decided that Mark intentionally finished at verse 8, so that’s where he would end, too. At the first performance, though, he felt uncomfortable with his decision, noticing that the audience clearly expected more. Finally, after an awkward silence, he said “Amen!” and walked off the stage to great applause from the audience, grateful for some resolution. The student thought better of his decision for his second show, however, realizing that he had betrayed Mark’s intent. So, this time, he ended by pausing very briefly, then leaving in silence. “‘The discomfort and uncertainty within the audience were obvious,’” said Juel, “‘and as people exited . . . the buzz of conversation was dominated by the experience of the non-ending’” (told by Tom Long, http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2006-04/middle-east-peace).

I made a similar wrong decision with the youth group in Kentucky. One of the girls, Christine, said she had always wondered what was behind a certain door at the top of some stairs. So, one evening while the youth and I were walking from one place to another in the building, I got the key and opened the door. It turned out to be the entrance to one of the organ chambers. Christine commented that she wished we hadn’t opened the door. The mystery was actually more interesting. She’s now a Presbyterian minister (the Rev. Christine Coy-Fohr). I’m thankful we have such perceptive young people among our teaching elders.

So Mark wants to remind us that fear, awe, amazement, and silence are sometimes part of a healthy faith. They start conversations. They’re interesting and profound. But by his ending he also wants to ask his readers a question. It’s this: if the women stay silent out of fear, and the other disciples lack understanding and run away, who is to tell the news of the resurrection? His answer? You are. I am. We write the rest of the gospel, so to speak, by our own witness in the places we live and work and play and learn. These are our “Galilees,” where Jesus meets us, risen from the tomb.

So even in the simplest and most routine tasks, we are doing our Lord’s work and are in his presence. The famous author Rob Bell says: “…this morning I woke up, fixed my boys’ breakfast, made their lunches and walked them to school. Recently we moved across the street from some friends so that we could live in community with each other. We’re sharing [a meal] tonight, and we’ll laugh and tell stories and celebrate the life that God has given us. So for me everything begins with the divine in the daily. If you can’t find God in the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and the dinner with beloved friends from across the street, then I don’t know if God will be found on the mountaintop. If I lose the sense of wonder about today and this afternoon and this evening, then there’s no point in spouting off about how to fix things. For me, that’s what it’s all about” (The Christian Century, 3/24/09: 24).

Making peanut butter sandwiches for children leads us to an encounter with God! That’s because God is already there, wherever we go, whatever we do. Some might claim that we take God with us, and if we don’t do that, he’s not in a particular place. But what kind of limited God would that be? A campus minister, speaking about the university, once wrote: “God reigns. God loves. God sustains. Because we hold these claims to be true, the university can’t be the godless place that some Christian apologists posit. God is present and active in the university because God is present and active in the lives of God’s people, wherever they may be. As a result, the task of campus ministry is not to ‘bring God to campus’ as some Christian evangelists suggest. God is already there, doing what God does. Rather, the task of campus ministry is to discover where God is already at work in the lives of people on campus and then celebrate and participate in God’s work” (David Jones, Spring News Brief 2009, NCMA). Just substitute where you live your life for the word “university,” and the writer will be speaking to you.

We know that, despite their fears, the women and men who followed Jesus did spread the word. They ultimately did not remain silent. They joined Jesus in the place of mission, in Galilee. They wrote their own ending to the story, which still goes forward with you and me as Christ goes with us. As Walter Brueggemann has suggested, it will be God who “as we are dazzled give[s] us the freedom to resituate our lives in modest, uncredentialed, vulnerable places,” the “freedom and courage to move out from our nicely arranged patterns of security into dangerous places of newness where we fear to go” (Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth).

Mark left the gospel chord suspended because with the help of our dazzling, frightening, gracious, powerful God, it’s up to each of us to play the resolving and final notes. We compose our own unique piece of music as we witness to and celebrate the work of God, in the here and now, until all of creation joins in a magnificent symphony of praise.

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