Sabbath Day Thoughts — “An Idle Tale” Luke 24:1-12
I was warned when I first came to Saranac Lake that I should NOT expect a full church on Easter. At the other three churches that I have served, Easter Sunday is a lot like Christmas Eve with people sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, belting out beloved hymns, and eagerly sharing “Alleluias!” But Saranac Lake? Not so much. Snowbirds have flown south for the winter to stay until May for fear of the dreaded Easter-snow. The two-week-long school break surrounds Easter, and families weary of winter and sick of mud season leave the North Country in stunning numbers to bask their alabaster flesh in the warm glow of Florida sun. The past few years have been complicated by COVID, sending us online instead of into the pews to celebrate the resurrection. On Easter Sunday, many of our friends are missing.
But this Easter, I’ve been thinking about those other people who are NOT in church—the unchurched. They may be like Brittney, a twenty-something young adult raised in church who never made an adult connection to a local congregation in her new community. On Easter morning, she is still in her jammies, reading a good book or facetiming with a college friend. The unchurched may be like Tim and Cindy, once faithful attenders at a Catholic Church until the clergy sexual abuse scandal shattered their trust in the institutional church. On Easter morning, they sleep in, read the New York Times, and have brunch. The unchurched may be like Mitchell. He has only been in church for weddings and funerals, occasions when he feels uncomfortable and out of place. On Easter morning, he is up early to watch soccer on tv. He wears the jersey of his favorite team, and from his man cave, his wife and children can hear the shouts of victory and the groans of defeat. For people like Brittney, Tim and Cindy, and Mitchell, Easter sounds like an idle tale—fantastic, mysterious, and hard to believe.
The women on that first Easter morning were accused of telling an idle tale. They traveled with Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem for the Passover. They hoped that Jesus was the Messiah, the Holy One of Israel. Many of them had been helped and healed by his miraculous power. But on Friday they witnessed their rabbi being beaten, abused, and crucified. They heard his dying words. They saw the blood and water pour from his side. They watched while Joseph of Arimathea claimed the body, wrapped it in linen, and laid it in a newly cut tomb. They retreated to the place where they were staying to prepare the spices and ointments. They prayed and wept all through the sabbath day. Then, early in the deep dawn, when the sun was just a rosy hint lingering below the horizon, they gathered their precious oils and walked through the streets of the city to offer a final kindness to the man they loved, anointing his body for the grave.
At the tomb, the women expected death. Afterall, they had seen it with their own eyes. But something fantastic, mysterious, and hard to believe, awaited them. The stone was rolled away. The body was gone. While they inspected the grave, bowed down with grief and confusion, holy messengers burst in upon them, reminding them of Jesus’ promise of resurrection and challenging them with the question “Why do you look for the one who lives among the dead?”
Amid the women’s puzzlement and grief, a certainty began to glow like a spark rising from the ashes: Jesus is alive. In the mixed joy and terror of that belief, they ran through the streets of the waking city and burst into the room where the disciples were still rubbing sleep from their eyes. All of them began to speak their truth at once, voices rising and falling, alleluias ringing, tears flowing, “The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed!”
Perhaps we can forgive the disciples for presuming that what the women had to say was an “idle tale,” stuff and nonsense, a fevered delirium. After all, the men had just woken up. And they lived in a world where what women had to say couldn’t be admitted as evidence in a court of law. And according to Luke, there were a lot of women saying the same wild stuff: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and all those other women who had loved Jesus, provided for him from their purses, and traveled with him throughout his ministry. All that joy, excitement, and hope that flooded in upon the disciples’ grief and shame made no sense whatsoever. So, the men failed to remember what Jesus had promised and they refused to believe. They hushed the women and went back to their dark thoughts and bleak world.
Even if we think that the disciples were embarrassingly clueless on that first Easter morning, we get it. We expect death. We have buried our parents and our dear friends. Sometimes on a day when the world turns black, we bury a child. We know the death of relationships. Marriages grow cold. Friendships end in nonsensical arguments. Neighbors disconnect over perceived slights or differences of political opinion. We know the death of opportunity. The promotion never comes. The degree is never earned. The pink slip arrives when we’re too old to start over. We know death writ large on the world stage. Russia invades Ukraine. Our wild world fails with mass extinction. Hunger walks the land in Yemen, Sudan, and Afghanistan. We expect death, preoccupied by our dark thoughts and bleak world. On some days, we can be just as resistant as the disciples to the truth that the women spoke, all those years ago.
On Easter morning, an empty tomb, two holy messengers, and a group of faithful women dare to tell us that death does not have the final word. Don’t get me wrong. Death is real. Pain is fierce. Loss can be overwhelming. Some days, we are bowed down to the ground in grief. Yet, God in a lonely tomb in the pre-dawn dark of Easter morning broke the power of sin and death. All the evil, grief, and sin of this world cannot keep Jesus down. Love wins the day. Jesus rises. The tomb is empty. God brings life out of death and reconciliation out of division. New beginnings spring from impossible endings. It is fantastic, mysterious, and on some days, hard to believe. But that’s what God does. Alleluia!
That news is so good that it can be mistaken for an idle tale. But the truth is proven in the living. When we join those women in saying “Yes!” to what God has done in Jesus, we find the possibility of new life. We are changed, just as the women were changed. We rise up with the courage to live with love and reconciliation in a broken and dying world. We move beyond our grief. We reach out a hand in forgiveness. We ask to be forgiven. We make a fresh start. We call for peace. We care for the planet. We feed the hungry. We become hope for the hopeless and food for the hungry of heart. The world is waiting for an Easter transformation. That can only take shape if we dare to speak our truth to those who may dismiss us as bearers of idle tales.
So, let’s do it. Let’s reach out to the Brittney’s we know, those twenty-somethings who haven’t been back to church since they left home. Let’s remind them of the love, connection, and encouragement that are such a special part of being a church family.
Let’s reach out to friends like Tim and Cindy, alienated by the sexual misconduct of those who had been entrusted with their spiritual care. Let’s remind them that God’s heart breaks along with theirs and there are other churches where the love of God is practiced sincerely in word and deed.
Let’s reach out to the Mitchells of this world. They may never feel comfortable coming to church, but they may see Jesus. Every time we share the love of Christ with fresh produce for the Food Pantry, shallow wells for Africa, or a prayer shawl in a time of crisis, we bear a quiet and powerful witness to the transforming, unstoppable love of God and the truth of Easter. Someday, people like Mitchell might even be a little like the disciple Peter. They could turn off the Sunday morning sports and venture forth to see for themselves, to look at the evidence and be amazed, even if they aren’t yet willing to accept the truth.
We’ve got a tale to tell, my friends. Some call it idle, but we know better. What are we waiting for? Next Easter, we might just have a few more people in the pews. Alleluia!
Lucy Lind Hogan. “Commentary on Luke 24:1-12” in Preaching This Week, April 17, 2022. Accessed online at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/resurrection-of-our-lord-3/commentary-on-luke-241-12-9
Holly Hearon. “Commentary on Luke 24:1-12” in Preaching This Week, April 20, 2019. Accessed online at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/resurrection-of-our-lord-3/commentary-on-luke-241-12-6
Michael Joseph Brown. “Commentary on Luke 24:1-12” in Preaching This Week, March 26, 2016. Accessed online at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/vigil-of-easter-2/commentary-on-luke-241-12-4
Arland Hultgren. “Commentary on Luke 24:1-12” in Preaching This Week, March 31, 2013. Accessed online at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/resurrection-of-our-lord-3/commentary-on-luke-241-12-3
Craig R. Koester. “Commentary on Luke 24:1-12” in Preaching This Week, April 4, 2010. Accessed online at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/resurrection-of-our-lord-3/commentary-on-luke-241-12-2
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5 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. 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8 Then they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 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.