Our Idle Tale

Pastor Ingrid’s sermon from Easter Sunday.

The Holy Gospel according to Luke, the twenty-fourth chapter:

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women 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 the women 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 the apostles 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.

Word of God. Word of life. Thanks be to God.


 

Sadness had never smelled so good. Cardamom, turmeric, cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin—so many spices were tucked into the folds of the women’s robes. Like the flowers we leave at the grave, the spices were symbols of enduring love that the women could see and hold and smell.

Under the cover of morning darkness, they had worked it out—that is, how they would roll the stone away. This wasn’t their first rodeo; they knew it would take their collective strength. “Once the tomb was open, they whispered, Jesus’s body would be right where they expected it to be.” The dead are predictable that way. And, in this case, predictability was good.

Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women have their world turned upside down the moment they enter the cemetery. Two dreamy guys in fabulous clothes tell them that Jesus is dead no longer. The tomb is empty; the women see it with their own eyes.

All four gospel writers place the resurrection accounts in the mouths of women. These women—who, because of their first-century womanliness, couldn’t legally be witnesses in a court of law—knew it would be a tough story to sell to the dudes who were hiding out back home in the upper room. [We won’t hold it against them.] The women’s suspicions were quickly confirmed. The disciples’ response to the women’s story was the Greek word “leros”—the root of the word delirious. It’s the only time this word is used in scripture.

It sounds like an idle tale.

Idle, to be sure. But, after he heard the women’s report and saw the plethora of unused spices spilling out of their pockets, Peter—also known as The Rock—took off in an embarrassingly fast sprint to see if it was true. He arrived to find the grave was bare, apart from the strips of burial linen gently folded and stacked where his friend ought to have been. He was amazed.

It sounds like an idle tale.

Who among us hasn’t thought so? The translations of the Greek differ—“an idle tale,” “empty talk,” “a silly story,” “sheer humbug,” “utter nonsense,” and, my personal favorite, “a foolish yarn”—but they all point to the persistent doubts carried by followers of The Way, followers of Jesus. (These are my teacher Tom Long’s translations.) Can the dead really be raised? Can this world really be arcing toward life? In spite of all the evidence we see around us, are we really resurrection people living in a resurrection world?

The truth is that there is plenty of Good Friday to go around. With the images from Brussels and Ankara and Istanbul and Grand-Bassam and Peshawar seared into our minds, with vitriolic political rhetoric ringing in our ears, with warmer temperatures recorded in our books, and with our own hardships tucked away where we think no one can see them…

It sounds like an idle tale, right?

“But remember what he said,” Joanna says to Mary Magdalene, “about the third day when everything would be turned upside-down.”

Another woman spoke up, “And remember when his mama used to sing that the proud would be scattered and the mighty brought down from their thrones and the lowly would be lifted up, and the hungry would be filled with good things and the rich would be sent away with nothing?”

And Mary, James’ mother, said, “We heard him say the last would be first and the first would move to the back of the line.”

And yet another said, “He was the son of a carpenter from Nazareth, and people listened to him.”

The women quickly piece together their recollections from the last thirty-odd years.

It sounds like an idle tale that the world can be transformed; that empires can be overturned; that the hungry can be satiated; that the order of the proverbial line can be reversed. It sounds like an idle tale that the powers that hold us captive can be overcome when we stand together; that addiction doesn’t have the last word; that underemployment doesn’t define our worth; that greed doesn’t dictate who we are. It sounds like an idle tale that racism and sexism and xenophobia can be unraveled, one painful thread at a time; that terror doesn’t stand a chance when drawn into love’s embrace; that the Earth’s abusers can, in fact, become careful lovers of creation. It sounds like an idle tale that death’s sting isn’t the end of the story.

There are tombs that some would have us believe cannot be opened—deaths that cannot be undone. But magnificat theology tells another story—a story of the great reversal that God is continually unfolding in our lives and in the life of all that God has made. Take it from someone who knows, resurrection isn’t a walk in the park. It’s hard work—this being pulled from the grave, this coming alive again. When the tombstone is rolled back—when everything is different and yet everything remains exactly the same—life can feel a little bright.

Despite our reliance on and love for trumpets and white lilies, however, Easter need not be seen as shiny. Had the gospel writers wanted to tell a sparkly story, they wouldn’t have told it like this, and Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women wouldn’t have been the tellers. Instead, we get a plain account. We hear what the women saw. We hear what Peter saw. And, in turn, we are invited not to only look behind us at the tomb that stands empty, but also to peer around and see stones being rolled away, tombs being emptied, and God’s commonwealth unfolding around us.

The late E.B. White was a fine essayist, who was most famous for his book, Charlotte’s Web. He was married to a woman named Katharine. As [he] watched Katharine planning the planting of bulbs in her garden in what they both knew would be the last autumn of her life, he wrote,

There was something comical yet touching in her bedraggled appearance…the small hunched-over figure, her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be yet another spring, oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting there with her detailed chart under those dark skies in dying October, [there she was] calmly plotting the resurrection.

On Easter morning, we ask: Can the dead really be raised? Can this world really be arcing toward life? In spite of all the evidence we see around us, are we really resurrection people living in a resurrection world? God’s definitive answer is “yes…start plotting.”

It sounds like an idle tale, this tale of Resurrection life. And today, thank God it’s ours.

Amen.

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