Sermon: An Idle Tale (Easter)

“An Idle Tale” (Easter)
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
April 21, 2019

Psalm 118:1-2, 14, 17-19, 21-24
O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good;
  God’s steadfast love endures for ever!

Let Israel say,
  ‘God’s steadfast love endures for ever.’
The Lord is my strength and my might;
  God has become my salvation.

I shall not die, but I shall live,
   and recount the deeds of the Lord. 
1The Lord has punished me severely,
   but he did not give me over to death. 

I shall not die, but I shall live,
   and recount the deeds of the Lord. 
The Lord has punished me severely,
   but he did not give me over to death. 

Open to me the gates of righteousness,
   that I may enter through them
   and give thanks to the Lord. 

I thank you that you have answered me
   and have become my salvation. 
The stone that the builders rejected
   has become the chief cornerstone. 
This is the Lord’s doing;
  it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
   let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Luke 24:1-12
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5The 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.6Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ 8Then they remembered his words, 9and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12But 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.

In this morning’s Gospel passage, the women have visited the tomb, found it empty, and heard the astonishing revelation that their beloved Jesus “is not here; he is risen.” Yet when they run to tell the apostles this great good news, they are met with a lukewarm response: the men hear in the women’s words nothing more than “an idle tale,” from a Greek word also translated as “silly talk” or “nonsense.”

Those words jumped out at me the first time I read this passage in preparation for today’s sermon. For one thing, it’s a reminder of how difficult we sometimes find it – even today – to take women’s stories seriously.

But beyond that, calling the women’s good news “an idle tale” points to something many of us struggle with: we may well believe Jesus rose from the dead to be with his friends again, that they felt the joy of his return to life when all seemed lost – but does his resurrection matter to us, today? In a world full of terrible headlines, where we experience excruciating loss and pain is around too many corners – is the Resurrection still real?

A church member whom I’ll call Lisa (and whose permission I have to share this story) came to talk with me this week, saying she had been struggling lately with her faith, feeling distant from God and from Jesus. There was so much suffering, she said – in the lives of her loved ones and in the lives of people all over the world. How could God let that all happen and still be a God of love, a God she wanted to be close to?

She was also struggling with missing her mom whom she had lost to dementia a few years ago. “Jesus gets to come back, but my mom doesn’t,” she said through tears.

I know many of us have felt the way that Lisa felt. We despair over humans’ ability to hurt each other. We deeply miss a loved one, and the hole in our hearts seems as though it will never heal. We grieve a broken relationship, an ended community, or the destruction of a physical place that held deep meaning for us. I know many people who felt the burning of Paris’ Notre Dame cathedral this week like a punch in the gut. In the face of devastations like these, is the Resurrection real – or just an idle tale?

Lisa and I kept talking; she shared about her mom, and I shared with her my own seasons of distance and doubt. Lisa nodded in response as I offered various theological answers to the problems of suffering and evil, but her eyes were still filled with pain, still guarded. But then we got quiet and listened – and something changed.

Many of you have heard me share in the last few weeks about Park Avenue’s Lenten study series and how we’ve been learning to listen to our “Mary” voices. The Mary voice is named after Mary of Bethany, who sat at Jesus’ feet while her sister Martha bustled around the house taking care of all the chores associated with having a houseguest.

As we’ve practiced quieting our “Martha” voices – our to-do lists, our judgments of self and others, our anxieties about the future and regrets about the past – we’ve discovered that our Mary voices have a lot to teach us about sitting with Jesus, attentive to the gifts of the present moment.

So Lisa and I got quiet, and listened. And what Lisa heard was that although her mother is gone physically, and the hole in Lisa’s heart left by her loss is real, her mother’s love is still very much alive, always with her, and always ready to fill up that hole.

Tears streaming down her face, Lisa opened her eyes. “You know, my mom was stubborn, just like I am. When I was a teenager and giving my mom trouble, she used to show me her c-section scar – thank goodness she didn’t do it when my friends were around – and point to it and say ‘This is what I went through to have you!’”

We laughed. “Sounds like your mom’s love was all bound up with her suffering,” I said.

Lisa’s eyes lit up. “Like Jesus,” she exclaimed.

“Yes,” I said. We smiled. Suddenly God didn’t seem far away at all.

Often we look at suffering and see an absence of God. But Good Friday reminds us that it’s actually the other way around: Jesus’ agony on the cross means that one of the places we can actually be most sure that God is present with us is in our suffering – not because God causes it, but because God has been through suffering, too, and will not leave us alone in ours.

Then Easter comes and we learn that God’s love goes even further: yes, it is present in the cross, but it doesn’t end there. God’s love carries us through the bleak forsakenness of the cross, through the too-quiet bereavement of the tomb, and out into the dawn of a morning where we discover that Love has survived. We discover that Love is always present with us and that death and loss are never the end of the story.

“It’s painful and it’s beautiful,” Lisa said.

“Yes,” I agreed. And once again, we smiled.

Did you see the photograph this week of the interior of Notre Dame after fire destroyed its roof and toppled its spire? Amidst the rubble on the floor, there remained a stand of votive candles, untouched and still burning. Lit earlier in the day by the faithful, the doubtful, the hopeful – they had somehow survived. Seeing them still alight after so great an inferno reminded me of the verse from the Gospel of John: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)

Though the flames endangered the lives of both firefighters and priceless works of art, they also produced an outpouring of generosity as people gave millions to rebuild a cathedral that, before the fire, had been in dire need of funds for restoration.

And as news of this outpouring spread, it inspired givers here in the United States to donate almost $2 million to the rebuilding of the three Black Baptist churches in Louisiana gutted by racist acts of arson. These churches had been struggling to raise the resources to rebuild until the more prominent church burned.

Friends, sometimes resurrection might indeed seem an idle tale; a story we tell year after year, but which, in the face of tragedy and loss, we might not always be able to bring ourselves to believe.

Yet God meets us in the suffering, and makes sure that the story doesn’t end there. Out of great loss God brings great love – a love too strong to die. Out of great tragedy God brings great beauty – a beauty entwined in pain, yes, but perhaps all the more powerful for that.

Resurrection may not always be easy to believe. But it is far from an idle tale – it is, in the most important sense, real. Thanks be to God. Amen.