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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

Easter Day, March 27, 2016

 No Idle Tale

Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 24:1-12

            As a young pastor in Columbia, South Carolina, in my thirties, I was often asked to teach and preach in other churches, colleges, schools or retreats, and almost always, I said “yes.”  I had an older friend who was a pastor on the other side of town who noticed this tendency.  Once, he said, “Todd, you’d speak at a dog killin’ if they asked!”  After teaching for a month of Monday nights at the largest Presbyterian congregation in Columbia, I had a phone call from a member who asked me if she could come to see me.  I learned in her first visit that Cherie was a nurse in her early fifties, who had never been married, whose parents had both died, and had recently been diagnosed with a return of cancer after five years, and a diagnosis of metastatic activity that made another surgery impossible.  At best, her doctors told her that through radiation and chemotherapy they hoped to buy her time.  It started a relationship that would prove to be one of the most blessed, yet painful, I would ever know.  For the next year-and-a-half we talked about her cancer and its awful affects, about life and what makes it worth living, and of course about death – specifically, about Cherie’s.  And, oh did we talk about Cherie’s questions!  Cherie faced death squarely.  Sometimes it terrified her; sometimes it made her angry at God.  Most often, it made her more alive than she had ever been before, and finally, death took her life from her.  Cherie made me face things that without her insistence and honesty I might not have faced – especially in my thirties.  And I will never forget the day when she looked at me and asked, point blank, “Do you believe in Jesus?  Do you really believe that He rose from the dead, and that like Him, I too will one day rise?”

            It is, of course, the question, more important than any other question, we might ask.  It is the question of what happens to us when we die.  Is it true, this Easter story of resurrection?  The New Testament takes this question to heart, and what we have is a wide array of witnesses who tell us what they experienced, what they saw and heard.  But every Gospel also acknowledges that not everyone believed.  Luke’s tale of faith and doubt goes like this: “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.”

            First off, it is a rich irony among the patriarchal culture of the Jews that in all four Gospels the first witnesses are women.  Josephus, the great historian of the Jewish people in Jesus’ time, wrote, “From women let not evidence be accepted, because of the levity and temerity of their sex.”  Why else would all four Gospel writers share this “inconvenient truth,” except that it was the only truth they had to share?

            The women came at dawn to the tomb, bearing burial spices.  These are the same women who have been there to witness Jesus’ arrest, His scourging, His death on a Roman cross, His burial in a borrowed tomb.  They came as soon as these faithful Jews could, after the Sabbath, to give Jesus the best burial they could under the somewhat shameful circumstances.  They find the stone rolled away, and when they “went in,” “they did not find the body.”  What they did encounter were “two men in dazzling clothes who stood beside them.”

            Saint Augustine said once, “In order to know the truth, we must first love the truth.”  Well, I have come to love the truth of these New Testament Easter accounts, especially because the truth they offer is so messy and so full of mystery!  In Mark, they encounter one “young man” sitting there, “dressed in a white robe.”  Matthew calls that figure an “angel of the Lord,” whose “appearance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow.”  I love that the church, in its wisdom, left these witnesses or testimonies just as they were given!  Luke has two men “in dazzling apparel” – just as Luke has two similar figures present at the Mount of the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah, and two at the Ascension of Jesus.  Fred Craddock says Luke wants us to know that all three of these events (Transfiguration, Resurrection and Ascension) are of the same piece – something only God can do!  The men in “dazzling apparel” and “the empty tomb” cause the women to drop their faces to the ground in fear and awe.  I love their responses, because it is probably how we ought to respond – except that we have grown too accustomed to them, and we have tried to tame these wild accounts down so they do not appear too outrageous or too much beyond our control.

            So let these women be our teachers this Easter: God’s ways are not our ways!  They are beyond human comprehension or control.  They are holy precisely because they are not of our own making.  And we all need more holiness and more mystery in our lives.  Easter ought to bowl us over, so stupendous are its claims!

            Secondly, these two men in dazzling clothes ask, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”  Easter tells us that God is a God of life, of vitality and newness.  I have a dear friend who teaches Bible at Wofford College, who is a Duke Ph.D. in New Testament.  Byron McCane pointed out once that whenever Jesus encounters death in the New Testament, the dead do not stay dead.  Wherever Jesus appears, there is life!  This is where the Holy One dwells; wherever new life bursts forth.  So why do we keep “looking for the living among the dead?”  If Easter tells us anything, it tells us that Jesus does not like tombs – He is far more interested in life!

            Atul Gawande has written a beautiful little book entitled, Being Mortal.  In it he tells the story of a physician named Bill Thomas who is given responsibility for a nursing home.  Bill Thomas is also a farmer, and he cannot help but notice how much more life he encounters on his farm than he does in this tired institution that seems too full of death.  Thomas decides to bring some life to this nursing home.  He brings in dogs and cats, one hundred birds, he plants a garden, builds a playground, asks his employees to bring their children to work.  He even sets up a childcare center in this old-folks home!  Bill Thomas writes, “People who weren’t able to speak started speaking.  People who had been completely withdrawn and non-ambulatory started coming to the nursing station to say, ‘I will take the dog for a walk.’”  Gawande notes, “The lights turned back on in people’s eyes.”

            I visited a member of our church this week who has cancer.  We talked some about my friend Willie’s fight with his disease, but what he really wanted me to see were his tomato plants he is growing inside, along with peppers, and the twelve holes he has dug outside in order to plant them.  My friend is not thinking about death.  He is not wringing his hands in woe.  He is too busy working on life.

            Finally, the messengers in dazzling apparel remind the women, “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.”  In fact, these women were present the three times in Luke’s Gospel when Jesus predicted His suffering, His death and His resurrection; in Luke 9 twice, and in Luke 18.  This word, “remember,” causes them to recall all that Jesus said and did, and reminds them that Jesus is a Savior who will save them through His suffering, not one who would save them from it.  (That would, of course, be a false God and Savior, for suffering and loss are written deeply into the contract of human life.)  Archbishop William Temple said, “God made the world so that accidents and suffering happen, but accidents and suffering are not the final word from God.  It is God’s grace that always has the final word.”  Easter is the event that promises us that the final word is life, not death; good, not evil; peace, not violence; love, not hatred.  The world treats all people with a striking impartiality.  What sets Christians apart is how they respond to tragedy, how they find hope ad resurrection and love even in the midst of sorrow.

            This week I took my almost six-year-old grandson to see the movie Zootopia.  I was not expecting much, except a shared experience with Keller.  But what a movie!  I mean, it is not Citizen Kane or Shawshank Redemption, but its two principle characters were a fox and a hare.  The two supporting actors were a lion and a lamb.  (I thought, “I’ve heard this story before!”)  It is a movie about good and evil, about war and peace, about cruelty and kindness, about whether we can ever live in the beloved community, in a world free from violence and hatred.

            As the movie came to its crescendo, it looked like our rabbit heroine, Judy Hop, was in grave danger, sure to be devoured by her onetime friend, the fox, Nick Wilde, who had suddenly reverted to his wild and violent ways.  It looked for all the world like our bunny was going to perish, and Keller, who was up until now quietly watching the whole movie, suddenly teared up and said, “Pops, it’s too scary!  I can’t watch it.”  I turned to him and said, “Hang in there, Keller.  I’m sure this movie has a happy ending.”  Actually, I had no real idea how the movie ended.  I was as surprised as Keller by what happened next, and at least as delighted.  But I knew that a Disney movie called Zootopia was not going to let Judy Hop get eaten alive by a violent fox.  And sure enough, I was right!

            Afterwards, it dawned on me that this is what Easter teaches – a kind of knowing beyond all our reason and all our fears.  Awful things happen in this world – terrible, tragic, heartbreaking, violent, unjust, unfair things.  And sometimes, like Keller, we are so scared that we are tempted to bail out, to give up, to withdraw from the world, and to quit.  Easter is God’s way of telling us, “I know this story has a happy ending.  Hang in there.  Take hope.”

            Remember what Jesus told you.  And remember the central claim of the New Testament: “Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed!”

                                                                                    Amen.

 

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