Scripture - Mark 16:1-9
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013

A man was visiting his relatives in the mountains of Tennessee and on Sunday he accompanied them to their church. As it turned out, their style of worship was more animated than the worship to which he was accustomed. The preacher would barely get a statement out of his mouth without someone in the congregation shouting "Amen!" or "You tell €˜em brother Smith!" And the longer the minister preached, the louder and more excited he became.

But it was not until after the sermon that the real excitement began. The minister reached down under the pulpit and pulled out a box. In went his hand and out came a snake. The visitor had no idea that his relatives went to a church with snake handlers. Just the sight of the minister holding that snake gave him the urge to dash out of that little chapel.

He tried not to appear panicky, but then the minister announced that he was going to pass the snake down each pew for everyone to handle. That was more than he could take, so he leaned over to his cousin and said, "We came in the front door which is up there by the minister. Where's the back door?"

She whispered, "There is no back door."

To which he replied, "Well, where do you reckon they'd like one?"1

Easter Sunday should quicken your pulse, but I promise there are no hidden boxes up here in the pulpit. However, with Paul at the organ and Harvey on the timpani; with our friends gloriously blasting the trumpets and our choir singing their hearts out, I hope you will allow God's Spirit to slip into your soul and to crack open the door of our mind. You may discover that something loftier than March Madness can ignite your passions.

Easter is a day of joy, of celebration, and hope. However, as our scripture reading has just pointed out, it did not start that way. The first Easter began with fear, amazement and silence.

New Testament scholars believe the Gospel of Mark was the earliest written gospel. It is the shortest and the others appear to expand Mark's message. One of the reasons it is shorter than the others is because it ends so abruptly. The resurrection of Jesus is the pinnacle of the gospel story, right? Yet Mark spends a mere eight verses on it.

To recap our passage, early on Sunday morning, three women went to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. When they arrived, they discover that the large stone had been rolled away from the entrance. Inside the tomb they saw a young man in a white robe and they were alarmed. (No kidding!) He tells them to be calm. Jesus is not there; he's been raised. Then he tells the women to go tell the disciples that Jesus is going ahead of them to Galilee and that is where they will see him. Then we read the odd, final verse of the Gospel of Mark: "So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

That's the climax of the gospel? They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid? How could you possibly launch a movement on that?

Well, many of the early Christians must have had the same reaction, because in the second century, someone added 11 verses. After worship, open the pew Bible or look in your Bible at home and you will see something called "The Longer Ending of Mark." In those 11 verses, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene, then two disciples, then all 11 of them. Jesus commissions them and then ascends into heaven. It is a much more satisfying ending. The only problem is that it does not appear in the oldest manuscripts. It was added several decades later.

Scholar John Rogers points out that the ending of Mark is actually more awkward than it appears in our English translations which have tidied things up a bit. Our English translation says, "They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.' But the Greek text says, "They said nothing to anyone; they were afraid because..." It's as if there is no period.

Sometimes you read a sentence and rather than it ending with a period, it ends with three dots. That's called an ellipsis. The three dots signify that there is something more. Rogers points out that it is the way Tolstoy ends his monumental novel, War and Peace. It ends with an ellipsis, three dots suggesting that the human story continues into the future. That's similar to the way the Gospel of Mark ends. It is as if Mark says "they were afraid because €˜dot, dot, dot'"2

They were afraid because...something mind-blowing has happened and they don't know how to deal with it. They were afraid because...what are they supposed to do now? They were afraid because...Jesus might come looking for them; and since they all went into hiding when he was arrested, "will he be there with open arms or will he be ready to bang some heads?"3 They were afraid because...

Perhaps Mark's gospel ends this way because resurrection is ongoing. The resurrection of Jesus is meant to serve as a sign that God is not finished with the world. God has the power to resurrect what is dead and infuse it with new life.

Make no mistake; death is a formidable force that stands as a destroyer of dreams. Death snatches our loved ones and hovers over our own heads like a determined fly we can never swat away. Death is life's chief irritant that constantly whispers in our ears: "Your life is limited." And yet, despite the fact that death is the assassin, the resurrection of Jesus declares that the world is not captive to its powers because... because where death tries to put a period, God puts an ellipsis; where death tries to say, "The End!" God says, "To be continued. This show is reopening in another theatre."

The astonishing message of the New Testament is that our earthly life is not all there is. Beyond the perpetual perishing of physical existence, there is something more.

And yet, the resurrection of Jesus is not only about new life after death. It is just as much about new life before death. The resurrection of Jesus stands as the archetype for the fact that God infuses each moment with possibilities for new birth. Life is not simply on cruise control heading down a set path. God presents new, life-enriching possibilities. What we often forget is that we are not to be passive participants in this process. God takes the initiative, but urges and expects us to be partners in giving birth to new life.

I love the way Anne Lamott expresses this resurrection hope that's created by the synergy of divine initiative and human response. She writes, "Even though I often remember my pastor saying that God always makes a way out of no way, periodically something awful happens, and I think that this time God has met Her match - a child dies, or a young father is paralyzed. Nothing can possibly make things okay again. People and grace surround the critically injured person or the family. Time passes. It's beyond bad. It's actually a nightmare. But people don't bolt, and at some point the first shoot of grass breaks through the sidewalk."4

We see signs of the resurrection when a mother whose child committed suicide, crawls out of the dark pit of depression and begins to experience moments of joy.

We see signs of the resurrection when someone who used to think he was funny telling jokes about "fags" now has close friends who are gay and he actively supports legislation to provide equal opportunities for everyone regardless of their sexual orientation.

We see signs of resurrection when family members who had not spoken to each other in years, forgive each other, and begin to celebrate holidays in each other's homes.

There are signs of resurrection all around, if we have eyes to see.

It was Neil Paynter's job to get the name of anyone who was new. He spotted a tough-looking young man shoveling sugar onto his cereal so he went over and introduced himself. The man did not answer or look up. Neil waited a couple of seconds and then asked him his name. The man made a vile comment about what Neil should go do to himself.

The next night, Neil approached him again. He growled and said his name was Donald. When Neil asked him for his last name, Donald's hands clenched into fists.

Although Donald was surly, Neil tried to make some contact with him whenever he came to the shelter. Neil would offer him something to eat, ask about the weather, try to talk sports. It was some time before the two men had their first true conversation.

One night, Donald said, "Brilliant dumplings. Are these homemade?" He savored another spoonful and his dead eyes lit up. "So who made these?"

Neil sat down next to him and Donald said he'd lived with his grandmother when he was a boy, and that she would make him beef stew with dumplings.

It took a long time before Donald opened up. It took the homey aroma of Norman's cooking. It took people remembering his name and giving him a warm welcome when he trudged in from the cold. It took Ray's goofy knock-knock jokes. It took Sue finding him clean clothes and a warm coat. It took a long time.

Then one evening Donald told his story. He had been a professional chef and worked in a nice downtown restaurant. He lost his job when the place went out of business. After that, he lost his apartment and started living on the streets.

Neil asked him what sort of food he cooked and he said he cooked anything and everything, but his specialty was cake. "That's my real talent," he said. "Layer cakes, cheesecakes, sponge cakes, birthday cakes, wedding cakes - you name it."

Neil tried to imagine this tough guy baking wedding cakes; his strong hands that look as if they wanted to strangle the life out of somebody instead squeezing out thick icing and creating beautiful desserts.

Donald talked about the time a famous food critic visited the restaurant. At the end of the meal the critic asked if he could shake the hand of the person who had made the extraordinary raspberry soufflé, and they called Donald out to meet the critic.

Neil said, "You must have felt proud."

Donald smiled and said, "I felt brilliant."

After that exchange, Donald began to lend a hand around the night shelter, carrying boxes and crates into the kitchen whenever there was a delivery. One night Donald talked about his five year-old son, Rory. His son was now in foster care and his girlfriend was in detox.

It took a long time to rebuild Donald's trust. It took Ray who'd lived on the streets and was now a counselor at the shelter. It took people who had never been on the streets but who could empathize. It took Mary mothering him when he was sick. It took Neil accepting him at the door, even when he was vulgar. It took barring him for a week when he threw a plate at Rahim and called him a terrorist. It took tough love. It took Father William's understanding, gentle way. It took a long time.

Then, one night he said his name wasn't really Donald. It was Brendon Matthewson. Neil wondered if this was a sign that he was ready to begin dealing with his past and looking to a new future.

As the months passed, Brendon began to get a glimmer in his eyes. He traded jokes with Ray and recipes with Norman. Then one day he said they wouldn't be seeing him for awhile. There was a warrant with his name on it. He said, "You can't keep your head down forever," and he walked up the street to the police station.

Ray and Jane visited him. When he was released, he landed a job cooking at the shelter. He said he wanted to give something back.

On Christmas day, he and Norman served up a legendary feast: turkey with all the trimmings; and for dessert: Christmas pudding topped with cream.

Neil didn't see him for three years. Then, one day Brendon stopped him on the street. Neil didn't recognize him at first. He looked like a different person. He looked brand new.

He was now a pastry chef at a supermarket in charge of decorating cakes and training the bakery staff. He was living with his wife, Jamila and his stepdaughter, Sara, in a little house outside the city. He said life was sweet. He said Jesus called him and he rolled up his sleeve to reveal his tattoo of a Celtic cross.

It was the last time Neil saw Brendon, but in his mind he pictures him icing names on birthday cakes and living in his own home with his wife and stepdaughter.5

Do not simply declare your belief in the resurrection, LIVE IT, because God seeks you as a partner in resurrecting the dead and transforming the living.


  1. Source unknown
  2. John B. Rogers, "Following the Four Gospels into Eastertide," Journal For Preachers, Easter 2013, p. 13.
  3. Lillian Daniel, "The Weirdly Real Ending of Mark," Journal For Preachers, Easter 2013, p.25.
  4. Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow, (New York: Riverhead Books, 2012), p. 84.
  5. Ruth Burgess and Chris Polhill, Eggs and Ashes, (Glasgow: Wild Good Publications, 2010), p. 236-239.

Prayers of the People
By Anne R. Ledbetter

God of empty tombs and Easter joy,
What do we do with news too good to be true?
Do we let the praises slip from our lips and slide out of our hearts?
Do we dress up for a day, let our spirits sing, then put it all to bed?
Do we wake up tomorrow, realizing that resurrection is ridiculous and return to our cynicism and despair?
Do we try to cling to this magical moment when the trumpets sound, the church is filled, and your people are riding high on hope?

Remind us that there would be no church without an empty tomb, no Christmas traditions without Easter's witnesses - women at that, spinning a tale of terror and wonder.
Angel talk: He is not here, he is risen, he is going ahead of you.
We praise you, Glorious God, for your Christ who even now goes before us - in strength and faith, in wisdom and glory.

He makes us lie down and rest in your verdant pastures.
He leads us beside the still waters of your steadfast love.
He restores our souls, and leads us into eternal life.

Even as we walk in dark valleys of disease and depression, of suffering and separation, of grief and gloom, we fear not, for we know that Christ is yet with us - comforting, healing, calming, empowering us.
We know that Christ prepares a place for us at the heavenly banquet, and that your goodness and grace will sustain us all our days.
Give heart and ears to hear the call of Christ our Shepherd, who leads us each and every day in the way of your justice, peace, and sovereign love.
Give us eyes to behold Christ our Light coaxing rebirth all around us.

May we too practice resurrection in our lives and awaken each day eager to breathe in Easter again and again.
Almighty God, who is Lord of life and death, we remember this day those who have meant the world to us and who no longer walk this earth. Men and women who were our parents, our siblings, partners, lovers, friends; children whom we bore into this life and who left us prematurely, these who were our beloved - and who are also yours. We bless you that, ever briefly but eternally, Christ lifted the veil that separates us from them, and that we now know that nothing can separate us from your love.

Infinite God, help us to comprehend your mighty power which turned the tragedy of the cross into the joy of the empty tomb. Break open our hardened hearts and slowly saturate our rigid/unyielding minds with the amazing and mysterious news: He who was no more is forevermore! May we join the chorus of the cherubim and seraphim and every tier of the hosts of heaven singing the song of triumph: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
For we pray this day in the strength and spirit of the Resurrected One, Jesus the Christ, who taught us to pray saying...