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An Idle Tale?

Thomas J Parlette

“An Idle Tale?”

Luke 24: 1-12

3/27/16, Easter

Pastor Billy Strayhorn tells a wonderful true story about a pastor who was asked to conduct a graveside burial service for a member of his church. The only problem was, the cemetery was more than an hour and a half away from the church. The pastor wasn’t feeling well, so he decided to ride with the Funeral Director in the hearse.

By the time they arrived at the cemetery, the Pastor was truly sick with flu-like symptoms. Feverish and sick, he made it through the service, but he was deathly pale and obviously not well. As they headed back home, the funeral director suggested the pastor stretch out in the back of the hearse since it was now empty. It had curtains over the windows so nobody would see him. The pastor decided that was a good idea – so laid down and fell asleep.

He woke up when the vehicle stopped. Taking a few minutes to fully wake up, the pastor slowly sat up and drew back the curtain to see where he was. Suddenly he was face to face with a gas station attendant pumping gas. Needless to say the attendant was a bit surprised, maybe shocked would be a better word, to see a body in the back of a hearse rise up and stare back at him. With all the color drained out of his face, the attendant ran on shaky legs back into the gas station, while the funeral director tried to catch up to explain the situation.

Says Pastor Strayhorn, “I’m pretty sure that’s how the women who came to the tomb that first Easter morning felt. They had to have run on shaky legs back to the disciples, their hearts pounding with both shock and excitement.”(1)

I think he’s probably right. The resurrection story is an amazing one. A man risen from the dead. It’s a shocking tale, hard to believe for some.

A few years ago, the former Governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, was asked if he believed in the resurrection. “Of course I do,” said Huckabee. “Dead people vote in every election we have here in Arkansas. Resurrection is very real to us.”(2) I’m pretty sure they say the same thing in Chicago.

I think Huckabee was only half kidding. But there was another woman who took this question of resurrection very seriously. She was sitting in church during the Advent at the National Cathedral in Washington DC. In the sermon, the priest asked the question, “What do you really want for Christmas this year?”

This woman says she was tempted to stand up and call out her answer – “What I would really like for Christmas is to believe in the resurrection.”(3)

I don’t think she’s alone. I would venture to say that there are many people in the same boat. Jesus rising from the dead is a great story – but for many people, it is difficult to believe. Our rational minds have a hard time accepting this resurrection idea. And in fact, from the very beginning, both dedicated disciples and cynical critics have struggled with this story.

Some said Jesus’ own disciples stole his body. Remember that was Mary Magdalene’s response when she first saw the empty tomb. In John’s Gospel we read, “She came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him.”

Matthew puts the blame on the chief priests for the popularity of this stolen body scenario. He tells us in his Gospel that the chief priests gave the soldiers guarding the tomb a large sum of money to say that the disciples came during the night and stole Jesus’ body while they were asleep. Then Matthew says, “And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.” To some people, the stolen body theory seems very credible.

Others contend that Jesus was not really dead when he was laid in the tomb. He was just unconscious, and he only seemed dead. Somehow, his disciples were able to revive him later.

Even the disciples had trouble believing in the resurrection. When they first heard the story, Luke tells us… “they dismissed it as an idle tale.”

An idle tale – that’s an interesting phrase. Richard Swanson, a biblical scholar who has written a series of translations and commentaries called “Provoking the Gospels”, has an interesting take on the meaning of the phrase “an idle tale.” He translates it as “women’s trinkets.”(4) At first, the disciples dismissed the resurrection as women’s trinkets. In other words, at first glance, the disciples treated the news of Jesus’ resurrection as wishful thinking, a well-meaning fairy tale, a bit of coffee talk perhaps, or a juicy bit of gossip shared over the backyard fence. Women’s trinkets – an idle tale. But then Peter ran back to the tomb and saw the proof for himself.

Even for Jesus’ closest friends, the resurrection seems too good to be true. There must be some rational explanation – anything but a resurrection. And yet it turns out to be true! An empty tomb with linen wrappings lying on the ground. Jesus Christ rose from the dead!

How do we know this?

First of all – we have a number of eyewitnesses. We read in the Gospels that Jesus appeared first to the women, and then to the disciples and then to many others too numerous to name. He talked with them, he ate with them, he showed them his hands, his feet and his side – he proved it was really him. He really did rise from the dead.

But we have even better evidence for the resurrection. We have the Book of Acts, and the letters of Paul, and the example of millions of faithful witnessed who have gone before us.

We have the evidence of changed lives! And as Stephen Faris once said, “In truth, the only evidence that matters at all is changed lives.” Just goes to show how right Tennyson was when he wrote, “Nothing worthy of proving can be proved.”

And that holds true for Easter and the resurrection. Our proof lies in our faith, and the evidence of changed lives. For without the hope that this idle tale of resurrection provides, life doesn’t make sense.

The former editor of The Christian Century, John Buchanan, once wrote that “After four decades of watching the sanctuary fill to overflowing on Easter Sunday, I have concluded that people turn out on Easter not entirely out of convention and custom, but because at the deepest level they want to hear a word about life in the midst of death.”

Buchanan goes on to tell a story about a minister in suburban Chicago he knows who had to lead her congregation through an unspeakable tragedy – a member of the church had shot his wife and her son and then killed himself. The minister had to comfort the congregation and hold them together.

She spoke at the memorial service for the mother and son. What do you say in a situation like that? This pastor told the congregation crowded into the sanctuary that there was a phrase in the Apostle’s Creed that had always bothered her – the phrase that Jesus “descended into hell.” She told how the pastor of the church in which she grew up so disliked that line that he went through all the hymnals with a black magic marker and crossed it out.

“I grew up saying the creed without that line. But this week, I understand it,” she said. “We have descended into hell together and Christ has gone before us, into every corner of it. The good news is that when life takes us there, when we have to go there, Christ goes with us. The good news is that God raised him up and he ascended into heaven that we might be raised with him.”

“Darkness is everywhere,” says Charles Tobias. “But God doesn’t give in to the darkness, not even when we do. God comes to us in the midst of darkness and offers us light and hope.”

“The enemy here is not death,” writes Dr. Suzanne Mayer, “but death with no promise of resurrection.”

In the resurrection, death without hope has been conquered. Without this idle tale, without these words of resurrection, life in our often dark world would not make any sense. Perhaps the ultimate proof of the resurrection is the ability of people of faith to keep moving joyfully through life, even when things have fallen apart all around them.

Most of us remember the January day six years ago when an enormous earthquake shook the island nation of Haiti. 220,000 people died. 300,000 were injured. Some 1.5 million people were left homeless. Even six years later, the scars remain. William Willimon tells a story about some college kids who went a mission trip to Haiti not long after the earthquakes had devastated that poor country. As they sifted through the rubble and cleaned up the streets, the students said the most disarming thing about being in Haiti was the laughter of the children, along with their raucous singing. Even though their world had caved in – those young Haitians kept moving joyfully through life. A stunningly hopeful response to tragedy.

I remember watching the CNN coverage of the relief efforts. As darkness fell upon Port-au-Prince after the earth heaved on that January night, people danced in the street and sang hymns – thankful that the quakes had ended. On CNN, Anderson Cooper was incredulous – he didn’t know what to say.

Hope in the face of tragedy is often difficult to believe. Resurrection from the power of death can leave the world speechless.

And yet, that is what we celebrate today. In every dark corner of this world, where life seems to have fallen apart, this idle tale of resurrection brings a word of hope.

Listen closely my friends, for all over the world you can hear the people sing…

“Jesus Christ is Risen Today…”, for today is the Day of Resurrection. Let us affirm our faith together with the Festival of Resurrection Liturgy printed in your bulletin…

 

1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXIV, No. 1.

2.    Ibid.

3.    Ibid.

4.    Richard Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Luke, The Pilgrim Press, 2006, p. 140.