Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The End That Isn't

Some years ago I was pastoring my first church in southern Indiana. In that church was a couple, Homer and Aileen, who in many ways served as surrogate parents for Cheryl and me. We were young, inexperienced, and a long way from home, and Homer and Aileen took us in almost literally as if we were their own children. When we got sick, Aileen fixed soup and brought it over to us. When my old car finally gave out, it was Homer who went with me to pick out a new one. When we moved into the parsonage of the First Baptist Church of Austin, Indiana, we moved from a small apartment in the seminary complex known as Seminary Village. When we moved our stuff into the large, brick ranch style pastorium it swallowed our meager belongings like hors d’oeuvres and cavernously gaped for more. Homer went with us to the furniture store and personally signed a note for us to buy furniture for the house. When Cheryl became pregnant with Justin, Homer and Aileen joked to everyone in the church that they were going to be grandparents. I didn’t laugh.

But on a cold, gray November morning in a coffee shop at Baptist Hospital in Louisville all our lives changed forever. For weeks Homer had been complaining about stomach pain, thought it was an ulcer. He’d been a decorated war hero in World War 2, spent 14 months in a Nazi prison, and the poor food rations and horrible physical punishment he’d suffered had taken its inevitable toll on him. Off and on through the years he’d had recurring complications from his imprisonment, and so none of us was much surprised when the doctor told us he’d have to have surgery for an ulcerated stomach.

But when the doctor approached us in the surgical waiting room, I could tell from his expression that it wasn’t an ulcer. I don’t know that any of us heard much after the “c-word.” Aileen managed a question: “How bad is it?”
“It’s bad I’m afraid, real bad.”
“Is there nothing we can do?” she asked.
He said: “Very little, I’m afraid.”
Then she said: “Thank you, doctor, I know you did your best.”

We’d been sitting in the coffee shop trying to make sense of the strange, numbing words we’d just heard. I was her pastor; I was supposed to say something pious and faithful, but I didn’t feel very pious right then, and I needed some faith too!

Then Aileen reached across the table, as if she sensed my faith faltering, and looked at me and spoke the most courageous words I think I’ve ever heard. “Wayne,” she said, “we’ll draw no conclusions about this ‘til God is finished with it.”

Though I don’t know for sure, I think Mark would have understood that. That’s the way he ends his Gospel (Mark 16:8) - the end that isn’t. I first noticed it way back in the late 70’s when I was writing my doctoral dissertation titled “Fear in the Gospel of Mark.” Mark concludes his Gospel at the Empty Tomb not with a resurrection appearance as the other Gospels do, or with jubilant joy or even profound faith – “My Lord and my God!” No. He ends his Gospel with failure and fear – “And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” It’s the ending that isn’t.

And the question is, “Why?” Why does Mark end his Gospel this way? Scholars have tried to answer that for years. “Maybe the original ending was lost,” they said. “Maybe something happened to him before he could finish it,” they said. Or perhaps, as I argue in my dissertation, he ended it exactly as he intended, with a non-ending. Maybe it was Mark’s way of saying that the Story that is Gospel is never really “over,” that we too are “characters” in God’s Great Story with a scene to play and lines to read. Maybe it’s Mark’s way of reminding us that with this God, “it ain’t over ‘til God says it’s over.”

I know that for most of us, much of the time, life looks like an endless parade of endings – the pink slip, the ominous diagnosis, the cavernous cemetery crypt. But Mark reminds us Who we’re dealing with…that with this God it ain’t over ‘til He says so. And even then…. We Christians have a word for that – Easter.

We buried Homer on Easter Sunday that year. I took Mark 16:1-8 as my text and Aileen’s words as my theme…and my hope: “I’ll draw no conclusions about this ‘til God is finished with it.” And with this God, Who has a habit of bringing dead things to life again, who can say when it’s really over?

And so, an Easter word for you. Don’t leave the game early, not with a God in the game for Whom “come backs” and “bring backs” are His specialty.

Happy Easter.

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