Sunday, April 7, 2013

Idle Tales, Ridiculous Stories

My first Easter sermon, at least that I have preached, for the Deer Creek Charge

Luke 24:1-12

The Easter story is a ridiculous story. The most immediate drama begins a week earlier when a poor dusty man with healing power in his hands enters Jerusalem on a lowly colt, not a warhorse as the Emperor would do, but a colt. He is greeted with joy and praise as a king would be, shutting down the city to honor him, this strange man from Nazareth. This entrance is the beginning because it is from here that the fear becomes palpable and things begin to move. Religious authorities and Roman imperial authorities feel their hold on the world getting weaker and they begin to scramble, to look for ways to get rid of this man--- who then proceeds to do everything they fear. He cleans out the temple of the merchants and loan sharks, and he taught there, every day gathering more and more people. The Gospel of Luke tells us that the people were spellbound by what they heard.1 And while priests and judges and imperial figureheads plot to kill Jesus, one of Jesus' own friends joins that plot, and things spiral into darkness. Jesus is arrested, abandoned and denied by some of his closest friends, humiliated and tortured at the hands of a man who said he did not find him guilty, and finally put to a bloody, painful death between two criminals.

But the ridiculousness of the story isn't just how we go from triumphant king to political criminal in five days--- the real ridiculousness of the story is the empty tomb. It is the point at which you have to stop the story-teller in his tracks and set him straight, saying, “well I might be gullible, but I'm not that gullible.” It reminds me of when we were really little, and my dad used to read stories to us when he got home from work. My dad is dyslexic and he would be exhausted after a long day, and so he would try to skip a page or cut out a paragraph; only I memorized stories and was a budding reader, and he could see when I was onto him. He would proceed anyway and end the story with, “And then a mean old snake man popped out and ate them all. The end.” I would stamp my foot at him, totally unamused, and say, “That's not how it ends, Dad!”

I wonder why more of us here this morning aren't stamping our foot at Luke, reminding him that we aren't that gullible. This is, after all, what the disciples did when Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women told them what they had seen. We read, But these words seemed to the disciples an idle tale, and they did not believe the women. The Greek word here translated as “idle tale” would be better translated as “hysterical nonsense,” because the word refers to the ranting of a delirious person.2 Even Jesus' own disciples' first reaction to the news of the empty tomb was to name the bearers of that good news as hysterical and ridiculous, and yet here we sit on Sunday morning in our Easter best, nodding along to the story like it is nothing out of the ordinary at all.

But Easter is a story that is very much out of the ordinary. When people die, normally what happens next in the story is that they stay dead (unless it is a soap opera, but there aren't enough evil twins or long-lost family members or amnesia to characterize this story as a soap opera). So Jesus is to stay dead. A group of women, the friends who were grieving the hardest and traumatized the most after Jesus' death because they had remained by the cross throughout his torture, go to the tomb to properly bury the body. They go early, but not in anticipation of finding anything out of the ordinary; no, they go early because they just need to be near him again, ensuring that though his last hours were not peaceful, now he will be at peace.

Can you imagine then what they would have felt? How sickened, really, they had to have been when they did not find Jesus' body? The text says that they were perplexed, but I think sickened would be more like it. Here are women who have watched someone they love deeply go through an unimaginably gruesome and painful murder. They did not need the trauma that losing his body would bring on--- the fear that as they tortured him in life, so they would not permit his lifeless body to be at peace. Yet the unsettling non-ordinariness of it all does not end with an empty space where a body should be. The ridiculousness continues. Two men in dazzling clothes suddenly appear, and the text tells us the women were terrified. They knew they were way past anything normal or explainable. No wonder the disciples referred to the women as hysterical: when you really try to let yourself feel what these women are feeling, the trauma, the grief, the confusion, and now terror, you begin to feel your heart rate go up a little bit too. But wait--- the story is about to get even more ridiculous, because the men say to the women--- this is my favorite part--- they say:
Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

I imagine these angels as nonchalant. Blasé. Like they were just walking by and had to stop and point out the obvious--- even though the obvious to them was certainly not obvious at all to anyone else! The women were doing what they were supposed to: caring for the body of their friend. And instead they keep getting slammed with surprise after surprise. Why were they looking for the living among the dead? Because they weren't looking for the living. They had watched him die, watched the life drain out of him. Had they not been so afraid, I think one of the women would have taken an angel by the shoulders and shaken him, shouting at him to explain what the heck they were talking about!

Why do you look for the living among the dead?” The angels ask them. “He is not here, but has risen. Remember?”

Another ridiculous question, but at this point in the story, it is just ridiculous enough to start making sense. And so they do start to remember.

When you lose a loved one, one of the most important things you do is to tell stories about your life with them. And so the women who followed Jesus must have done the same after his death, spending that Saturday before going to the tomb telling stories of their lives with Jesus.3 When the angels prompted them to remember Jesus' teachings, those memories then are on the tips of their tongues. Jesus' great healing power, his deep compassion, his righteous anger--- all these things swarm together in their minds and in the midst of it all lies the very simple plot line that the angels feed them: “The Son of Man must be handed over to sinners and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”

And the women remember. But the ridiculousness of the story isn't over. See, the women in this story believe without seeing. I don't know if you noticed, but in the twelve verses we read in Luke this morning, a risen Christ is talked about, but he does not appear. All we have is some linen cloths, people wearing dazzling clothing, and the absence of a body. (We get a risen body next week, so stay tuned.) But this week, these things do not add up to an equation for belief or joy. Yet the women do believe. I don't want to make this into a sermon on the merits of believing without seeing, but I do want to point out that the triumph over death that we experience this morning is not extravagant, not impressive, but it is quiet and, well, crazy.

In this past year, most of us have lost someone close to us, through death, divorce, a family fight, a long-distance move. Most of us have been ourselves or been alongside someone battling a horrible illness like cancer. Most of us at some point in this year have felt alone, discouraged, unloved. We have been in places of deep darkness. Many of us may feel the darkness of Good Friday or the silence and aloneness of Holy Saturday more true than the light of the resurrection. And yet, some way or another, we have come to this place this morning to celebrate a ridiculous story that even Jesus' own disciples called an idle tale, a story of a man who was raised from the dead two-thousand years ago.

It doesn't make any sense.

But then, God's love for us never makes any sense. We are broken people, stubborn people, people with a ton of problems and doubt and frustrations and hatred--- and yet here's this God who loves us so much that God gives us a light in our darkness. God says, “Look here, the world can be an ugly and cruel place--- and you may even be ugly and cruel to me--- but I am with you, I will not forsake you, and I can defeat the cruelty with beauty and love.” That's what God is saying in the resurrection. Isn't it ridiculous? Isn't it wonderful?

Seeing that there is not physical resurrection in this story not only furthers the ridiculousness of it all, but it grounds us more firmly in our role in this story. We, like the women, are to become the tellers of idle tales, those who remember the power in Jesus' life and teachings and who do not give up when we aren't believed. We are to preach this message of our ridiculous loving God, this message of hope, even when we don't always feel it ourselves. We are to look for the living, even when all around us is death. Because we know God is victorious. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!

Let us pray:
Living God, we praise you for breaking away from our rules
for loving us even when it doesn't make sense.
We ask that we too may catch your nonsensical nature,
loving with abandon and being the light in the darkness.
We pray this in the name of your son Jesus, who destroyed death,
and whose resurrection we proclaim. Alleluia! Amen.

1Luke 19:38 (NRSV).
2Jane Schaberg, Luke, Women's Bible Commentary, Expanded Edition with Apocrypha, edited by Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 379. See also Gregory A Robbins, Exegetical Perspective on Luke 24:1-12, Easter Vigil, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 2 Lent through Eastertide, edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009) 351.
3For a fictionalized exploration of this idea, see Mary Ellen Ashcroft's The Magdalene Gospel (New York: Doubleday, 1995).

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