Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“No Idle Tale”
Rev. Art Ritter
April 21, 2019
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.
I have started receiving a weekly newsletter this past week. I don’t recall having subscribed to it or requesting but I haven’t deleted it because I find it somewhat fascinating. It even provided an illustration for my Easter sermon so it can’t be all bad! It is The Weekly News from Ripley’s Believe or Not. The Weekly News consists of events that are too strange to be true yet actually happened in the past week. Here is the Weekly News from April 12.
The first item came from Florida, of course, where a 17 foot python weighing 140 pounds and containing 73 developing eggs was reported missing. Authorities feared that if the eggs were laid in the swamps, the new pythons which hatched would destroy most of the existing wildlife in the area. The missing python was eventually captured when male snakes equipped with radio transmitters were sent out to find the female.
The second story came from Taiwan where a woman had complained for weeks of a swollen eye. She was given some treatment but nothing seemed to work. Finally, after closer examination, a doctor discovered that there were four bees living under the woman’s eyelid. Medical authorities believe the bees were sustaining themselves off the woman’s tears.
Finally, Oregon police were called to deal with a report of a burglar. Two house sitters left to walk a dog and when they returned to the house they heard banging noise coming from the bathroom. They tried to open the door but found it wedged tightly shut. The house sitters then called police who entered the house with guns drawn. They ordered the burglar out of the bathroom. There was no response. The policemen then forcibly took down the bathroom door. It was then they found the burglar. It was a Roomba spinning against the bathtub and the door.
Idle tales. It is hard to tell just what to believe these days. Accusations fly much faster. Claims are quickly made about something or other being “fake news.” The internet makes it possible for any kind of story to reach millions of people in just a short period of time. It seems that there is a new social media hoax at least once a week. We read something on the internet and we pass it on without checking its authenticity. We read something on the internet and we quickly dismiss it because we can’t trust its source. There are so many alternative versions of the same story that we can’t begin to know just what we are supposed to believe. Idle tales indeed.
Today we encounter the implausibility of something so wonderful, something so life-changing, something that seems just too good to be true. According to the gospel of Luke, Easter morning began with the news of the world pretty straight forward and clear. Jesus was dead and his body was secure in the tomb where it was placed following his crucifixion. Some of the followers of Jesus, in this case women followers- Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and others whose names were not mentioned, came to the tomb bringing spices to properly anoint Jesus’ body for burial. They weren’t expecting anything out of the ordinary.
Arriving at the tomb, the women were confronted by a totally surprising and confusing scene. The stone guarding the entrance to the tomb had been rolled away. There was no body in the tomb. Suddenly there were two men dressed in dazzling clothes were beside them saying, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, for he is risen!”
The first instinct of these women was to go and tell someone! If someone strange or wonderful happens to us- we have to share it on Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram or Snapchat. We believe everyone needs to know. The women immediately left to tell of this mysterious news to the now eleven disciples. And what was the disciples’ reaction? Were they overjoyed and excited beyond belief? No. Luke says that they believed the women’s words were “an idle tale.” They did not believe them. They were not moved to do anything about what they had just heard.
An idle tale. It is interesting to note that Luke uses the Greek word “leros” to describe the disciples’ opinion of the women’s story. “Leros” is much harsher than “fake news.” It means “delirious.” The disciples believed that these women were off their rocker. They were insane. Their story was complete and utter nonsense. Clarence Jordan in his Cottonpatch version of Luke and Acts describes it this way, “But it all seemed to the men like so much female chatter, and they wouldn’t believe it.” An idle tale.
Why did the disciples have so much trouble believing the story of the women? Perhaps they had already accepted the finality of Jesus’ death. Grief is difficult but at least it provides closure. You accept the facts and move on. And now these women were opening up the wounds again. Their crazy story didn’t help anyone trying to deal with the reality of Jesus’ death.
Could it be that there was even some sense of relief among the disciples about continuing to believe that Jesus was dead? As much as they loved him, he always challenged them. He made them feel uncomfortable. He made difficult demands. Maybe there was some relief about closing the door upon that part of their life and getting back to normal.
Perhaps the story the women told was just too good to be true. The possibility that Jesus was alive and no longer in the tomb was just too wonderful for any sane person to believe. Thomas Long tells the story of his friend’s son who was a great fan of both Captain Kangaroo and Mister Rogers. The boy loved both television shows, and one day it was announced that Mister Rogers would be making an appearance on Captain Kangaroo. The boy was beside himself. Both of his heroes would be together on the same show! When the day of show arrived, the whole family gathered around the television. There they were, Captain Kangaroo and Mister Rogers together. To everyone’s surprise, the young boy watched for a minute, but then got up and wandered away from the room. “What is it?” asked his father. “Is anything wrong?” The boy replied, “It’s too good. It’s just too good.” Maybe the disciples felt the same way. Believing the story would get their hopes up too high and could lead to even more disappointment. None of us wants to be in that place where expectations lead to disillusionment.
And then there came Easter morning. And then there came this idle tale- this story that didn’t fit into their understanding of reality. They may not have liked what had happened to Jesus and to them, but at least they understood it all. But if the dead don’t stay dead, what kind of reality could they count on anymore?
Here we are gathered together on Easter morning. We’ve heard the account of the women who witnessed the empty tomb. We’ve heard the voice ourselves saying, “He is not here for he is risen. Why are you seeking the living among the dead?” We might hear these words as an idle tale ourselves. For us this Easter Sunday, resurrection may just be an historical event of two thousand years ago that we remember and celebrate this day. For some, resurrection may be an intellectual puzzle, a scientific search for proof in an ancient text or in a DNA sample of bones or a shroud. For some, Easter may be a nice little hopey-springy-bunny-eggy day when we wear our new pastel clothes and come to worship because it is a tradition to do so and the best we can do is speak of resurrection as a beautiful story or a meaningful metaphor. But for most of us, I believe, Easter is something more significant. The impact of Easter doesn’t depend on our ability to explain it or prove it or dress up for the occasion. The impact of Easter is our ability to make it more than an idle tale, to believe in the story enough to live it and to tell it to others.
Understand, in Luke’s account of Easter morning, Jesus isn’t the central character. The tomb is empty and he is gone. It is the women who come to the tomb and the disciples who first hear the story who are the central characters. They hear the story. They ask the questions. They ponder their response. Those who first heard the good news of an empty tomb and regarded it as an idle tale soon came to have a powerful experience of the Risen Christ for themselves. They found unexpected life where they had expected only death. They found another chapter when they thought that the book was finished. They found their faith was now stronger, their vision clearer, and their courage restored. They didn’t just hear the story, they became part of the story and shared the story themselves. The idle tale became a real narrative when they believed and acted upon their belief.
In a recent ESPN 30 for 30 show entitled Survive and Advance, former players and reporters remembered late North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano. In November of 1982 he gathered his players at Reynolds Coliseum for their first preseason practice. After two frustrating seasons with their new coach, they were anticipating an afternoon of drills and sprints and strategy. Instead there was only a ladder underneath one of the baskets. Valvano confused the players by handing each a pair of scissors. He said, “We are going to win a championship. The first thing we need to do is to practice cutting down the nets.” The players thought their coach was crazy, that he was trying to fool them with an idle tale. Five months later, North Carolina State won the championship in an upset of highly favored Houston.
Jim Wallis of Sojourners writes, “Hope believed is always considered nonsense. But hope believed is history in the process of being changed.” Perhaps more than ever, as believers in the Risen Christ we need to be telling tales of resurrection today. To believe in the resurrection of Jesus takes a lot of faith and courage. It is more than believing the claims of men and women two thousand years ago. It is saying no to the power of death and destruction that surrounds us this very day. It is challenging the powers of the world who would deny God’s claim upon the goodness of life. It is witnessing understanding that our destiny is with a personal God who cares about us and will be with us no matter where we go, bringing new beginnings from all of our dead ends. It is declaring that there is a sustaining power, a power of God that brings life out of death and reconciliation out of conflict and light out of darkness.
American novelist and poet Wendell Berry writes, “Every day do something that won’t compute…practice resurrection.” Though a cynical world and the supporters of the status quo may think Easter is an idle tale, we need to be about the nonsense of such a tale. There are empty tombs in our midst today. Those new beginnings are no idle tale. In the name of the Risen Christ, let us practice this nonsense of resurrection. Let us offer, with our words and our actions, idle tales of hope lived out in our world.