Sermon: Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013: “More Than an Idle Tale”

 “More Than an Idle Tale”   

Sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt

Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA

March 31, 2013

 Easter Sunday

Luke 24:1-12

          Each of the four canonical gospels takes a slightly different approach to the story of the women going to the tomb on that first Easter, what they find there and how they respond to it. The Gospel of Luke’s version is the assigned reading for this Easter. As I read the text, pay particular attention to what happens when the women go into the tomb, what the two men in dazzling clothes say to them, and how the eleven remaining disciples respond to the news they bring back. Listen for God’s word to you in Luke’s gospel:

 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

         The Gospel of Luke does us a favor by letting us see how the eleven disciples responded to the word of hope the women brought back from the tomb. The women, breathless with excitement over their encounter, came back to let the rest of the group learn of the good news.

          I can hear the women now. (Speaking very fast) “We went to the tomb and the body wasn’t there! And there were two men in dazzling clothes, I think they were angels, and they told us, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Don’t you remember all that he told you while he was with you in Galilee, about how he was going to be crucified and rise again?”

          And I can see somebody in the group, maybe Peter or James or John, telling the women to slow down, to think clearly, to get their heads on straight.  I can see the others in the group raising their eyebrows, shaking their heads in disbelief, dismissing the women’s firsthand report from the tomb as nothing more than what the New Revised Standard Version calls an “idle tale.”

          Actually, the Greek word translated as “idle tale” is leros.  Leros is the root from which we get the modern word delirious. In other words they were saying to the women, “You’re out of your minds. You must have a fever. You’re crazy to believe that. And we are not going to.” And the eleven didn’t believe. Not at first anyway. It was just as hard to believe that a man could rise from the dead then as it would be to believe it today.

         The Gospel of Luke does us a favor by giving us the eleven disciples’ reaction to the news because it is, well, so natural. It is so natural to disbelieve something so unnatural.  It’s the kind of response you or I might have – or maybe do have – to such news. When you think about it, resurrection breaks all the rules of what we think is possible in life.  If the dead don’t stay dead, what can you count on?[1] Things we thought were settled and certain may no longer apply.  Resurrection, in other words, throws off the balance, upsets the apple cart and generally turns our neat and orderly lives out of whack, which is why I think if you don’t find the resurrection at least a little hard to believe, then you’re probably not taking it very seriously.

         A colleague of mine, Rachel Held Evans, wrote recently about the doubt and disbelief that some people bring to Easter morning. “It may nag at you, like at pebble in your shoe…or worse it may feel like it is pushing your head under the water.”[2]

She writes:

It may be triggered by an image, a question, something the pastor said, something that doesn’t add up, the unlikelihood of it all, the too-good-to-be-trueness of it, the way the lady in the thick perfume behind you sings “Up from the grave he arose!” with more confidence in the single line of a song than you’ve managed to muster in the past two years.

And you’ll be sitting there in the dress you pulled out from the back of your closet, swallowing down the bread and the wine, not believing a word of it.

Not. A. Word.

So you’ll fumble through those back pocket prayers – “help me in my unbelief!” – while everyone around you moves on to verse two, verse three, verse four without you.

You’ll feel their eyes on you, and you will recognize the concern behind their cheery greetings:  “We haven’t seen you in a while!  So good to have you back.”

And you’ll know they are thinking exactly what you used to think about what you called Easter Sunday Christians.

Nominal.  Lukewarm.  Indifferent.

But you won’t know how to explain to them that there is nothing nominal or lukewarm or indifferent about standing in this hurricane of questions every day and staring each one down until you’ve mustered all the bravery and fortitude and trust it takes to whisper just one of them out loud on the car ride home:

“What if we made this up because we’re afraid of death?”[3]

(In other words what if it is all leros?)

Evans ends her piece by writing,

There are other people singing words to hymns they’re not sure they believe today, other people digging out dresses from the backs of their closets today, other people ruining Easter Sunday brunch with their questions today, other people just showing up today.

And sometimes, just showing up – burial spices in hand – is all it takes to witness a miracle.”[4]

         I think the real miracle of Easter is not summed up in the mental gymnastics it takes some people to believe in their heads that a first century Jew named Jesus literally rose from the dead.  So many people get tripped up there. Don’t! The real miracle of Easter is trusting with your heart in the power of God to ensure that sin, death, and evil don’t get the last word, but love does.  When you trust that, you show up – burial spices in hand – and sometimes you see things that are even more amazing, in their way, than a man rising from the dead.  You see things that are so amazing that you can believe that God can raise the dead after all. That it’s not just an idle tale. Easter is about the power of God to bring life out of death, to bring hope out of despair and discouragement, to bring love and compassion where fear and hatred would be the natural responses.

         The theologian Philip Yancey, who wrote the book Where is God When It Hurts? was asked by the pastor of Walnut Hill Church, a large congregation just outside of Newtown, Connecticut, to come and speak to that community just two short weeks after the tragedy there this past December.[5] In preparation for his talk, Yancey read about Desmond Tutu’s experience as head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. It was an experience which Bishop Tutu knew would test his theology, because the hearings were laced with real life stories of brutal assaults and terrible crimes often carried out by people who considered themselves good Christians. After two years of hearing horrific stories of human inhumanity to other human beings, Tutu nonetheless came away with his faith strengthened, because he had also witnessed accountability, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

On the heels of that, Tutu wrote:

“For those of us who are Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is proof positive that love is stronger than hate, that life is stronger than death, that light is stronger than darkness, that laughter and joy, and compassion and goodness and truth, all these are much stronger than their ghastly counterparts.”[6]

         As a counterpoint to Tutu, Yancey also read some of the writings of the New Atheists and evolutionary biologists, people who would reject Tutu’s religious perspective.  Richard Dawkins, for instance, believes that “the universe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”[7]  According to Dawkins and some evolutionary biologists, we are no more than “complex organisms compelled by selfish genes to act out of self interest.”

         “Is that what you’ve seen here?” Yancey asked the nearly one thousand people who gathered at Walnut Hill church on a snowy night just two weeks after the shootings. “I don’t think that’s what you’ve seen,” he said. “I have felt an outpouring of grief, compassion, and generosity – not blind, pitiless indifference. I’ve seen acts of selflessness, not selfishness: in the school staff who sacrificed their lives to save children, in the sympathetic response of a community and a nation.  I’ve seen a deep belief that the people who died mattered, that something of inestimable worth was snuffed out on December 14th.”[8]

         What Yancey was talking about in that church was the power of God to ensure that sin, death, and evil didn’t get the last word. That didn’t mean that those who were killed at Newtown would miraculously come back to life in the here and now, be restored to their families’ and friends’ living rooms and kitchen tables.  It did, however, mean that God wasn’t going to let that be the end.

         In Newtown, Yancey says, he asked a familiar question with a slight change. He asked, “Where is no-God when it hurts? The answer: if we are all just cosmic accidents, we live meaningless lives in a universe of random events and detached indifference. The parents who lost a child at Sandy Hook recoil from such a conclusion. Following the apostle Paul, most of them hold tightly to the hope that the existence of their son or daughter did not end on December 14th, 2012; rather, a loving God will fulfill the promise to make all things new.” [9] That’s what the resurrection is about, finally. God’s promise not just to raise a first century Jew from the dead, but to make all things new.

         There’s a clever video I ran across this week that starts by treating the testimony of the women as if it were just an idle tale, after all. Words scroll across the screen as you read:

Easter has come, but for many of us this is not the ultimate reality. There is too much pain and suffering in the world today. Death has the last word.  It would therefore be foolish to say that the life and death of a first century Jew named Jesus makes a difference. Why? Might makes right. Power is superior to compassion and despair is stronger than hope. So I refuse to believe a man can come back from the dead. Sometimes the most important facts are the hardest to accept. Resurrection is a false hope. How can you say an empty tomb changes everything? Don’t you see? God loves the world is a lie.  Money is god and the one who dies with the most toys wins. I will tell you what I tell my children. There is no more to this world than what you can see hold and buy. There is no mystery in everyday life. And there is nothing sacred about ordinary things and people. And many of us simply do not believe that God can give life to the dead, bring light to the darkness, and create something out of nothing.[10]

         And after those words scroll out, and you see them all, the words, “But what if the testimony of the women at the tomb was true?” come up.  Then you read backwards, and this is what it says.

But what if the testimony of the women at the tomb was true?

Then God can give life to the dead, bring light to the darkness, and create something out of nothing.  Many of us simply do not believe that there is nothing sacred about ordinary things and people, there is no mystery in everyday life and there is no more to this world than you can see and hold and buy. I will tell tell you what I tell my children. The one who dies with the most toys wins and money is god is a lie. God loves the world. Don’t you see? An empty tomb changes everything. How can you say resurrection is a false hope? Sometimes the most important facts are the hardest to accept. A man can come back from the dead. So I refuse to believe that despair is stronger than hope, power is superior to compassion and might makes right. Why?  The life and death of a first century Jew makes a difference.  It would therefore be foolish to say that death has the last word. There IS too much pain and suffering in the world today. But for many of us this is not the ultimate reality.  Easter has come.[11]

         Do you see how changing the perspective, reading it backwards, understanding that the “idle tale” might just be true, changes everything?

         On Monday of this past week, Holy Monday, a man in my former congregation, eighty-eight years old, went to pick up some rent from a past due renter.  He was taken at gunpoint, told that his grandchild was in peril, brought to a bank, and told that if there were any funny moves when he went in, that would be the end.  He went in, withdrew money from the bank, came back out to the truck, and the man took him to a field and shot him dead.  This criminal left an innocent good man, whom I care about enormously, dead in a field where they didn’t find his body until late Wednesday night.

         The people of my former congregation need Easter this week more than they’ve ever needed it before. And guess what? They have it. His wife, Ruth, with whom he would have celebrated seventy years of marriage in May, is bravely holding her head up because she knows that Lindsey is with God. And that congregation and that family know the Easter truth that death does not get the last word, life does. And that hatred doesn’t get the last word, love does.  And that despair doesn’t get the last word, hope does.

         They need Easter more than they’ve ever needed it before. And guess what? They have it.  And so do we…  So do we.

In Jesus’ name.

Amen.

Aaron D. Fulp-Eickstaedt

[1] Anna Carter Florence, who teaches preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA, where Judith and I went to school, said this in an interview at WorkingPreacher.org. You can see the whole interview here:  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preachingmoments.aspx?video_id=10:

 [2] Rachel Held Evans, “Holy Week for Doubters” in her blog at rachelheldevans.com. You can read the post here: http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/holy-week-for-doubters

 [3] Ibid.

 [4] Ibid.

 [5] Philip Yancey, “National Tragedy and the Empty Tomb” Christianity Today March 28, 2013.  You can read the full article, from which I paraphrase, here:  http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/april/national-tragedy-and-empty-tomb.html?start=3

[6] This piece from Desmond Tutu, referenced without attribution by Yancey, probably came from No Future without Forgiveness (New York: Doubleday, 1999).

[7] Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (New York: Harper Collins, 1996).

 [8] Yancey, “National Tragedy and the Empty Tomb”

 [9] Ibid.

 [10] David Lose is responsible for creating the video, “Easter is Coming.” You can see it here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0c2inXKD6PI

 [11] The story behind the creation of the video can be found here:  http://www.davidlose.net/2013/03/the-story-behind-easter-is-coming/

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