08 April 2007

Sermon for Easter Day - "From Idle Tales to Resurrection Life"

The Greek word lhvro" that our New Revised Standard Version Bible translates as "idle tale" is generally defined as "utter nonsense," or "humbug." Deciding how to begin an Easter sermon is a pretty daunting task – so sometimes just getting the title is a good start. But sitting at one's laptop to write an Easter sermon with the words "Idle Tale" in the title makes one understand how a sculptor must feel, standing with hammer and chisel in hand, staring at a block of stone and wondering if the end result will be "Beautiful!" or "bah, humbug!"

Every year this happens to me on Easter Day. The Easter sermon is perhaps the hardest one to write. The anxiety does not rise from the scripture passage – the anxiety rises from a desire, this Sunday more than any other, to stay behind the story. No matter how conscientious we may be, we preachers know that we very often put our own spin on God's Word when we step into the pulpit. The temptation to overwhelm God's Word with our own idle tales is a constant threat, but it is most dangerous today, on this holiest of holy days, because of the importance of what we remember here today. A preacher who stands between God's people and the story of the Resurrection is a preacher who is getting in the way – and that preacher is turning the glory of the Resurrection into an idle tale.

Now, the most recent issue of Newsweek printed a conversation between atheist author Sam Harris, the author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, and Baptist minister Rick Warren, the author of The Purpose-Driven Life, which may be the best-selling Christian title ever. The topic of the Harris & Warren conversation was, “Is God Real?” As you might imagine, the conversation didn't really "go" anywhere. The publisher disclosed during the introduction that Pastor Warren's faith remained unscathed and Mr. Harris remained opposed to what he called the "ludicrous obscenity" of religious faith. In fact, these two intelligent people were well-intentioned and obviously trying to be respectful in their conversation. But for each of them, the words of the other remained an "idle tale;" words that were utter nonsense to the other. In the end, this is what will happen in such situations, because the reality of God is not something established under such conditions. It's like a woman who speaks American English & a woman who speaks Portugese debating the reality of the German umlaut – they are using two different systems of speech, two different sets of meaning and experience, to establish the reality of a third, and it's just not possible to make it work.

I wonder if what happened on the morning of the Resurrection was a similar problem. We read the gospel accounts of the Resurrection with 2,000 years of faith and practice heaped on top of the story. It is next to impossible to mention the words "empty tomb" without everyone in the church immediately knowing exactly what to expect next: an angel telling the women that Jesus has risen from the dead. But the disciples, the ones who lived that moment, had none of our pre-conceived notions about what Jesus ought to be doing when he ought to be dead. The only way we can understand what the disciples went through would be putting ourselves in their shoes. Imagine someone coming to you to say that the grave of someone you loved has been opened and the loved one is no longer dead, but living. What would you say? Nonsense? Humbug? An idle tale? Now you know what it meant to be a follower of Jesus on the day of his resurrection.

But we believe that resurrection is exactly what will happen, don't we? Don't we confess every week to believe in the communion of saints, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting? Of course we do – but until we experience that resurrection, it will in some ways remain an idle tale to us; not because we don't believe, but because the reality of Resurrection has not yet broken in upon our experience.

In the interest of full disclosure, I'm going to give you a moment of unvarnished honesty. The Biblical accounts of the Resurrection, on their own, aren't enough for me to believe that the Resurrection is not an idle tale. Resurrection stories are found in nearly every religion in every tribe, race or nation the earth has ever known. The Egyptians had one; the Sumerians had one; the Greeks had one as well. The Gospel stories of Jesus' resurrection, on their own, don't go beyond idle tale for me, and I hope they don't for you, either, because I don't think God intended it to be that way.

Is God real? Is the Resurrection more than an idle tale? I cannot answer those questions for you. I WON'T answer those questions for you. But - I can tell you what is real to me. I can give you my answers to those questions. For twenty-one years my grandmother has celebrated Easter in the shadow of her husband's death on Easter Day, 1986. She clings to the hope of being reunited with him, and with her son, my Uncle Denny, because of her faith in the resurrection of Jesus. Three summers ago, I sat with my mentor, Larry Meyer, and we talked about the cancer that was slowly killing him. He faced his death with hope and peace because of his faith in the resurrection of Jesus. Twelve years ago I stood on a hilltop in central Nebraska, pouring my heart out to a starlit March sky and hoping, praying for some kind of sign that there was someone listening, because if there wasn't anyone listening I didn't know if I could go on. Something gave me the strength to go on, and face my life and my mistakes – and that something gave me faith in the resurrection of Jesus.

What I know from my life and the ones I love makes the Biblical account of the resurrection real and true and the moment that gives me life. But the resurrection of Jesus is about more than my life: it is about Resurrection Life, life lived under the sign of the cross that sees all things through the shared story of Jesus the Christ, Savior of the World. Forty-odd years ago, a Baptist preacher from the South named King changed the course of a nation and its people because of his faith in the resurrection of Jesus. Sixty-two years ago, a German pastor named Bonhoeffer calmly walked to his death in a Nazi concentration camp because of his faith in the resurrection of Jesus. Thousands upon thousands of people in Calcutta, India, with no way to care for themselves, found healing and hope in the care of a woman named Theresa, who cared for them because of her faith in the resurrection of Jesus. Five hundred years ago, a monk from northern Germany named Luther changed the course of Western civilization because of his faith in the resurrection of Jesus. And two thousand years ago, a group of women and men started sharing an incredible story: they believed in the resurrection of Jesus, even if saying they believed it would cost them everything.

It is these things and more that bring me to believe that the resurrection of Jesus is more than an idle tale. This cloud of witnesses has convinced me of the utter truth of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the only Son of God, Messiah and Savior of the world. But I cannot stop there. I cannot rest on the reality of the resurrection. It is something in which I must immerse myself, again and again, because the story of the resurrection of Jesus has become more than just a story – it is now Resurrection Life, the very thing from which all that I know and all that I am arises. And because of everything the Resurrection has become to me, the gospels become truth as well, words that are not an idle tale, but rather the place where I find my Savior's life revealed and living in me. I need to hear these stories because they fill me with life itself, no matter how many times I've heard them. As my friend and fellow blogger Milton says, "One of the reasons I’m glad life circles around to the Resurrection every year is I know I need to hear the story again because there is still much about faith and life that needs to dawn on me." [1]

So, does all of this mean anything to anyone? I hope so, but that's not under my control. Perhaps someone could make the case for the resurrection of Jesus in a more empirical fashion, but I think that would be an exercise in missing the point. Faith can only come through shared experience filled with the Spirit's breath and life. As Diana Butler Bass says,

The resurrection is not an intellectual puzzle. Rather, it is a living theological reality, a distant event with continuing spiritual, human, and social consequences. The evidence for the resurrection is all around us. Not in some ancient text, Jesus bones, or a DNA sample. Rather, the historical evidence for the resurrection is Jesus living in us; it is the transformative power of the Holy Spirit, bringing back to life that which was dead. We are the evidence.[2]

If you want to know what it is that moves the story of the resurrection of Jesus from idle tale to life itself, look around you. We gather here because the story is not just an idle tale. We gather here because the resurrection of Jesus is what gives us life. Amen.

1 comment:

  1. Good words, Scott. Thank you. We stand in a lineage of life that is both humbling and empowering. Happy Easter. (And thanks for the quote!)