(A sermon for Easter Sunday, using Luke 24:1-12)
Our garden needs cutting back and down and digging out and starting all over again. Just like the 80 year old pipes in our house with valves that no longer want to close all the way, the overgrown rhododendrons have gone past charm and usefulness and threaten to meet each other across the front steps, blocking our way into the house. In the backyard a round arborvitae that was too large when we moved in nine years ago is quietly being munched to death by dogs, at least on one side, and is now a hemisphere. The lilacs and flowering apple tree in the backyard need a visit from the tree man, too.
But this week nature took a hand, bending bushes low with the weight of April snow, breaking a branch on the apple tree that will now need professional attention because it is too high for me to reach and I do not have the proper tools.
We looked out on the Spring Wonderland early on Maundy Thursday and worried, my daughter and I, about the tree, whether the branch might be at risk of falling on Molly and Sam. Then The Princess looked at the young hydrangea planted just four years ago, and at the sprawling forsythia bent over and mired by snow. I agreed that we could rightly be concerned about the first, but when she turned her attention to the forsythia I smiled and said, “Don’t worry, you really can’t kill a forsythia. Even if you cut it down to the ground, it will grow back. You would have to dig it up to lose it.”
I believe in the forsythia’s power to come back to life. It’s just something I’ve heard, and I haven’t ever cut one all the way back to test it, but I believe it is true, mostly because other people have told me so. Somewhere, someone can testify to the facts of forsythias, but I am removed from the facts and know only the truth.
It’s a bit that way with Jesus and his Resurrection, isn’t it? Right from the beginning, it sounded like a strange story, even to those who most wanted to believe he was not dead. The disciples scoffed at the women, accusing them of telling an idle tale. Who ever heard of such a thing? The stone rolled away? No body in the tomb? The dead man living? Preposterous!
When I was growing up in Virginia, my daddy used a curious expression when he doubted the veracity of a story told by either of his children. “Don’t give me any of that ‘Who Struck John,’” he would drawl. It was an old-fashioned expression even then. I think he said this more to my brother than to me, but you couldn’t be mad when he caught you talking baloney, because the expression was so funny! And he was sharp. He always knew.
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. (Luke 24:10-11, NRSV)
I think of the women that day, in a culture where women’s voices were not valued, and imagine the disciples calling their story so much “Who Struck John.” They must have felt just awful. First they had a terrible shock, and then they faced the belittling response of their friends. They *knew* something had happened that was important beyond their way of understanding, and no one wanted to believe them.
We live in a time when believing in something, anything, sounds like an idle tale. At one end of the spectrum there are realists and atheists, who want proof that things are true. At the other end there are literalists and fundamentalists who want proof that you are true to God. Then there are those of us who inhabit a section of the vast middle ground, neither looking for anyone to tell us what to think, nor sure of all the answers that would relieve us of the burden.
It’s as perplexing today as the women found it at the tomb. They were baffled, befuddled, bewildered, confused and most of all—mystified.
Is mystification always a sign of Who Struck John, of idle tales? Or can it point to a truth rising beyond facts?
You have probably heard the stories about ossuaries discovered in the Holy Land that some people claim hold the remains of Jesus and his family. Burial practices and family customs of the first century are combined with DNA studies to draw a conclusion that Jesus was buried with his wife and child. You can hear the rejoicing from the rational people who argue that since there is no God, there can be no Christ, no being both fully human and fully divine, no man who experienced a bodily resurrection and then ascension directly to heaven. What a pleasure for the non-believers to see “evidence” that Jesus left behind bones. They take things just as literally as the Christians at the other end of the spectrum.
The same story becomes a talking point for those other literalists. We hear of an attack on Christianity. We hear denials of the scholarship around the ossuaries. We must revisit all the things that were not true in The DaVinci Code! They tell us the bones can’t be those of Jesus because the Bible has the facts and Jesus’ body can’t have remained in a tomb and been moved to an ossuary. He walked out of there; haven’t you read it in the gospel?
And all this happens just in time for Easter…making “experts” on both sides popular guests on TV talk show panels.
I want to know when someone on TV will talk with me or with anyone who doesn’t insist on facts where truth is what really matters. Perhaps a mystery will always be considered an idle tale.
Here is a mystery. Two different years in my 30’s, terrible life events coincided with Holy Week and with Good Friday in particular. For many years it remained a particularly tender day, so tender, in fact, that I became an evangelist for the story of Christ’s Passion. I grew to love the expression “there is no Easter without Good Friday.” I wanted everyone to know they missed the message of the Resurrection unless they had been to the place of death and despair.
I will never again be a person who skips joyfully from “Hosanna” to “Alleluia” without a stop in between. But I did get to Easter again, and the loss of a baby that will forever be part of my understanding of Good Friday, and the Easter I spent in the hospital weeping a few years later, will always be part of the Alleluia.
Like the forsythia, I grew back from the experiences that cut me down to the ground.
Easter begins in grieving and ends in rejoicing. Anytime we overcome a loss by believing in joy and new life, we celebrate Easter. It’s not the same as forgetting the past; we incorporate it into something new.
Easter means admitting outdated attitudes, releasing outlived feelings and overcoming outgrown habits. If you’ve ever had to do any of those, you know what kind of painful work it can be. But it can be done. Look at Peter, who denied Jesus three times, but was the first to run to the tomb after hearing the story the women told.
All this is living the Resurrection, admitting that there can be another chapter to the story, that there can be new life.
The women who went to the tomb had to come to a new understanding of Jesus; the men who had walked with him and would see him in a state beyond life and beyond death had to come to a new understanding of Jesus and of life and of death.
A friend asked me this time last year what I felt was the real miracle of Easter. I told her, “No matter how dark the night may be, the sun always comes up again.”
Beyond that, I can’t prove a thing about Easter. We have four stories, all written later on, not a one of which agrees completely with the other. I only know I believe in the essential truth of the Resurrection: somehow those close to Jesus experienced his presence even after his crucifixion and death, and somehow we feel it, too, this very day.
Bones in an ossuary make no difference to my faith that this is no idle tale, but a living truth.
Can we live with the idea that what we believe a wholly mystical holy mystery, inexplicable by archaeologists and historians and religious adventurers—and not disprovable by them either?
It is a mystery as old as time. At night the sun disappears from view, and in the morning it comes back again.
It is a mystery as old as creation. In the dark parts of the year, the trees appear to die and the flowers wither and fade, but in the spring they leaf and blossom again.
It is a mystery as old as our faith. On Friday, Jesus died and his friends laid him in a tomb. On Sunday, he was alive again.
It is a mystery as new as this morning. Christ is with us this very day. It is no idle tale. It is a living truth. Alleluia! Amen.
Forsythia image from Wikipedia.