An Idle Tale

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!


Resources:

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


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. 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.


A Bigger Mission

Sabbath Day Thoughts — Mark 7:24-37

Every day we encounter them, folks who are outsiders to the Christian community.

Melissa has never been a church member.  Although her parents were both raised in mainline congregations, they never got involved with the church as adults.  They never had Melissa or her brothers baptized or confirmed.  Melissa has good memories of attending church as a child on special occasions with her grandparents, especially those wonderful Christmas Eve services.  Sometimes, Melissa thinks she could really use that beauty and belonging in her life, but she doesn’t know how that would happen.  Her grandparents have been gone for years.  Sunday morning services feel like a foreign language, and the one time she did go, she sat by herself in the back.  It feels a whole lot safer to stay home and have a second cup of coffee.

Ben and Mary haven’t attended church since their youngest son aged up and out of the Youth Group.  They had felt it was important for their children to experience the moral and ethical teachings of Christianity, and so for years they had made the effort to come to church.  They sat in the sanctuary while the kids trooped off after the Children’s Time to Sunday School.  Ben and Mary never truly intended to drop out of church.  Each week they promised one another that this would be the Sunday they would be back.  A week turned into a month.  Then, it was a year.  Then, it just got too embarrassing because they had been gone for so long.  Now they think of church as something that had been part of their lives “back then.”  It’s just too much bother to reconnect.

Betty attended church weekly for decades.  Every week, she sat in the same pew, used the same hymnal, and passed the peace with the same people.  All that tradition had to change when Betty sold her house, which had gotten to be too much to manage after her husband died.  Betty’s new home is a fifteen-minute drive from church.  After she had a series of fender benders, the kids persuaded her to give up the car.  As a result, Betty’s Sunday morning trips to church came to an end.  Betty likes the online services, but it’s not the same.  She misses worship; she misses her church family.

Every day we encounter them, those folks who, for whatever reasons, are now outside the Christian community.  We exchange awkward “Hellos.” We make small talk about the weather.  We share superficial news of family.  Then, we go our way, feeling relieved it’s over but also a little sad.

Our reading from Mark’s gospel told two stories of outsiders to the covenant community.  It began with that woman and her demon-possessed daughter.  The Bible scholars like to tell us all the reasons why this woman and her child would not be welcomed by Jesus and his friends.  First of all, she was a Gentile of the worst sort: a Syrophoenician who worshipped the storm god Baal.  These were not lost sheep of Israel.  These were foreign Jezebels.  This woman didn’t have the courtesy to follow the traditional practice of sending a male family member to make the request for healing help.  A first-century rabbi would never accept a private audience with a woman who was not a family member, especially a Gentile Syrophoenician one.

All Jesus wanted was a little peace and quiet after his dust up with the Pharisees and scribes, but as soon as this woman heard that Jesus was in the neighborhood, she was knocking on the door with her inappropriate request.  We know that Jesus didn’t like it because he called the woman and her child dogs—ask any woman and she will tell you that there is absolutely nothing nice about being called a dog, no matter who says it.  Most of us would tuck our tails and walk away, but that tenacious woman refused to give up.  Her witty repartee about even dogs deserving a few crumbs—and her bold faith that Jesus could heal her daughter, if he only would—stopped Jesus as he began to shut the door.  “Hmm,” he thought.  “Maybe it isn’t just about the lost sheep of Israel.  Maybe God’s love can be bigger than that.  Maybe even outsiders like the Syrophoenician woman and her daughter could have a place within the new covenant community that is taking shape around me”.  One thing is for certain, Jesus changed his mind.  The demon was gone and the girl was cured, sight unseen.

The second healing story serves as an exclamation point to this notion of a bigger mission.  Jesus was again in Gentile territory, again facing inappropriate demands to heal someone who was beyond the literal and spiritual borders of Israel.  This time, there was no harsh refusal, no need for witty repartee.  On the contrary, Jesus worked hard for the man’s healing: laying on hands, applying spittle, touching his tongue, and praying, “Ephphatha!”  Be opened!  Jesus’ healing work was so thorough that the no longer impaired man and his friends couldn’t stop sharing the good news of what Jesus had done, despite Jesus’ request that they keep it on the down low.  The news of this new openness must have spread like wildfire throughout the Gentile cities of the Decapolis.

These beautiful stories of healing and the command to “Be opened” speak to us.  Often when we hear them preached, we are reminded that Jesus invites us to reach beyond traditional boundaries.  We are meant to share God’s love, healing, and mercy with folks who are stereotypically outsiders to the mainstream of society—or at least to mainline churches.  Be opened!  Minister to those who are incarcerated.  Reach out to the refugee and the migrant.  Welcome neighbors whose lifestyles or loves have been made to feel like they don’t belong amid the assembly of the faithful.  Indeed, I believe that Jesus calls us to that radical openness which we affirm every Sunday when I share our statement of mission and state that, “All are welcome here.”  God’s love is always larger and more inclusive than we can begin to imagine.  Jesus expects that those who follow him will “Be opened” even when that is not easy or comfortable.

This time through the lectionary cycle, I have also been thinking about those other outsiders, the ones we encounter every day.  They may be spiritually hungry seekers, like Melissa.  They have never known what it is like to have a church family.  They don’t know that Jesus loves them.  The very thought of attending a church on their own feels risky and lonely, like being a stranger in a strange land.

Those everyday outsiders may have once had a place in the assembly of the faithful.  But then an empty nest, or a big promotion, or retirement got them out of the church habit.  They have slipped away from our Sunday mornings and our potlucks.  For a number of years, they made an obligatory appearance on Christmas Eve.  One day, we sadly realized that they aren’t church people any more.

Those everyday outsiders may even have once been insiders like Betty.  Then, a big move, a growing disability, the death of a spouse, or the onset of dementia brought an end to their deep engagement with the congregation.  We miss them, but we don’t always do anything about that.  We trust that the deacons and the pastor will handle it.

There are everyday outsiders everywhere, and the advent of the pandemic has made it that much easier to allow folks to continue to be outsiders.  We tell ourselves that if people really want to worship, they can now do so online.  We don’t even consider inviting them to church because who wants to worship in the Great Hall anyway?  It becomes awfully easy to hide behind our masks in the grocery store.  We may encounter those everyday outsiders everywhere, but those awkward moments of encounter pass.  We shrug it off, at least until the next time.

Ephphatha!”  Be opened, Jesus says to us this morning.  It’s a prayer.  It’s a plea.  It’s a calling to take personal responsibility.  Those everyday outsiders, their mothers aren’t going to come knocking at the church door, demanding an audience with Jesus.  Those everyday outsiders, their neighbors aren’t going to intercede for them.  It’s up to us to care, to reach out, to speak, to make a way for connection, to be the love of Christ for those who feel that, somehow, they are on the outside.

Jesus, put your fingers in our ears.  Jesus, give us a little of that holy spittle.  Jesus, touch our tongues.  Open our hearts to those who are on the outside looking in, lonely, alienated, and uncertain about what they are truly looking for.  In a world that is desperate for God’s mercy, healing, and love, the gap between insider and outsider is ours to bridge. 

Resources:

Ashton, Loye Bradley. “Theological Perspective on Mark 7:24-37” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2009.

Howe, Amy C. “Pastoral Perspective on Mark 7:24-37” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2009.

Wilhelm, Dawn Ottoni. “Homiletical Perspective on Mark 7:24-37” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2009.


Photo by Polina Sirotina on Pexels.com