April 6, 2007

An Idle Tale

A Response to Luke 24:10-11

“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 [about the empty tomb] seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”

One truth about me is this: Every now and then, I find myself slightly embarrassed about the innermost content of the New Testament. It is sometimes just too much to swallow. Upon reflection on what is admittedly quite a strange fix for a Presbyterian preacher, I realize that my mild discomfiture with the heart of the gospel stems mostly from my fear that I will be received by others just as Mary Magdalene was received by the apostles. Her first-person-singular-sermon to that huddled mass of frightened (male) disciples is summarily written off as utter nonsense, charismatic foolishness, or in Luke’s phraseology, “an idle tale.”

Had Miss Mary grown up in the South, those men would have said she was “just tellin’ stories.”

And it’s no wonder they don’t believe what she tells them. Half of the time I have trouble with it myself. There is a palatable, reasonable, understandable layer to our faith, to be sure; one that is less assaulting on the logic, and therefore so less demanding on a heart like mine—slow to trust, slow to believe. “Love, peace, caring, grace, forgiveness” – these are the ingredients of faith which dissolve so much more readily into the stirred-mixture of my life. A reasonable faith: that’s what I think I long for.

But to leaf through the pages of the gospel accounts, to travel with our Jesus toward the living God, sentence by sentence, page by page, is to discover along that way that ours is a faith built not upon vague religious principles, or upon rational and therefore palatable ideas, or even upon generic spiritual experiences—the kind anyone can have when he sponsors a hungry child (for just pennies a day), or when she sees another touching Mormon commercial (And they are so touching, aren’t they?).

No, to follow Jesus through Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—to follow him all the way, as Mary Magdalene chooses to do—is finally to be assaulted by a most messy spectacle: the bloody cross of Friday and the absurd empty tomb of Sunday. The former, too much to stomach; the latter, too much to believe.

Nevertheless, to get to “faith, hope, and love,” to arrive at the more reasonable and comforting elements of this faith we Presbyterians so rightly hold dear, one must travel the bumpy, difficult road of idle tales and unbelief. And, frankly, sometimes I find this fact a bit embarrassing—that my faith is rooted, not in plausible wisdom, but in a particular weekend.

Just consider the images: Jesus, “God’s only son!”—weak, dying, alone. And then comes the audacious claim that somehow this sad moment saves me from my own sad moments, my own demise. Good Friday is more than most of us can understand, much less swallow.

But the assault on the senses continues, for then comes Easter. With its sunrise also comes Mary Mag and her Sisters of Divine Duty. Demoralized and depressed over Friday afternoon’s apparent defeat of their religious cause, their Lord now looming low in the tomb (God in the grave!?), they come to the cemetery, I imagine, driven mostly by sheer duty. It’s just another day of coping, and grieving, and, well … it turns out “there really is nothing new under the sun.”

Only, upon their arrival, they find everything is topsy-turvy. No stone, no body; no death, no darkness. The intervening angels – And thank God for them! – speak a necessary word of peace whilst they fill in the necessary details, lest this moment leave our faithful little ladies in cardiac arrest. (Try all of Luke 24 to get the full flavor of this.) Upon hearing the news, all the women know to do is to run, back to their congregation, and along the way to try to find the language to speak the unspeakable, to name the unnamable: He was dead. He is alive. The world as they knew it since Friday is now upside down. Or is it right side up?! So much to say. Such a story to tell.

So she goes. She tells. And of course they (i.e. the men) don’t believe her. Not one word. Point number one: She’s a women. “Women exaggerate.” “Women are dramatic, bless their little hearts.” “Women are in no place to carry an authoritative word.” (The latter of these, a generally accepted first-century fact, I’m sorry to say.)

But point number two: It’s nuts. I mean, really: Jesus? alive! (Granted, as good first-century Jews, these men had already been taught to imagine that God could and would raise up at the end of all time the faithful folk who had died along the way. That much took plenty of faith already. But none of them had ever considered that God might do something like that in their midst, in the here and now—that Jesus the Rabbi, unjustly condemned, might turn out to be Jesus the Resurrected, astonishingly alive. And it sounds even nuttier to us, with our beloved secular-scientific assumptions that only the visible is really real, only that which we experience firsthand can be “true”, and that objects at rest stay at rest.)

It was all too much for them, and for us, to believe. Hence, verse 11.

Presbyterians: I am convinced that we who have grown up in this faith must every now and then step back from our cradle roots in the church, our long loyalty to this familiar story … we must step back far enough from the old, old gospel tale until it looks as newly-obtuse and crazy-impossible as it did to Peter and that first gaggle of scared, skeptical Christians. It is an idle tale, relative to life in the “real world.” Impossible: That the same old merry-go-round of sickness, sadness, and sin that we all know so well would be abruptly stopped once and for all by one whose power was displayed, not in might but in sacrifice, and who on Easter morning effectively sticks out his foot and brings the whole sad ride to a merciful halt. Nothing generic in that announcement.

“The scandalous particularity of Jesus.” That’s what the theologians call this whole wonderful Friday-Sunday mess: that at the center of our Christianity lies, not some core set of “family values,” not some collection of universal principles or piety or philosophy to which we can all reasonably ascend, and certainly not some inward spiritual light that—thank the heavens!?—we all posses … No, at the center of it all is an idle tale, a crazy story, a mad Mary Magdalene who sounds like she’s out of her head: talking of empty tombs, of angels rejoicing, of a life renewed and reborn—a first and final and fixed victory over death-decay and its predictable persistence in the world.

But back to my embarrassment: In my secret imagination, I see my neighbor on Bedford Avenue—a nice enough guy, though not a “churchgoer”—one day mustering the courage to ask me what it is I believe exactly, for he knows that I am a Christian. (Well, at least he knows I am a minister. I can only hope he knows I am a Christian, too.) As this hypothetical dream plays out in my mind, I find I want to keep the conversation general, keep it light, keep it vague, so as—let’s admit it—to avoid looking/sounding like a freak, like a religious nut, like one of those people on the cable channels who—in Jesus’ name, no less—gives you the willies. Hey, I’m a Presbyterian, not a fanatic.

And yet if he really wants to know, if he is at all serious about seeing the axles on which my faith rides, about the core of what I claim and what claims me, then I will have to find a way to tell him about, of all things, a cursed cross and a vacated tomb. I will have to tell him that, despite all my scientific, pragmatic, what-you-see-is-what-you-get, only trust the face-value, natural law, common sense, American education … I go to church on Sunday mornings to remember that this Jesus whom we killed for his truth-telling walked out of his tomb and changed the world. Wow. I will somehow have to explain that my faith takes flight on these terrifically strange wings, and none other. I’ll have to risk telling what will surely sound to him as an idle tale. (Then again, perhaps the joke will be on me. Perhaps in ways he cannot even name, he’s been waiting to hear tell of some other tale different than the one so painfully apparent to him day by day. One never knows.)

Dear flock, maybe we are all Mary Magdalenes. Maybe the Holy Spirit waits at our bedsides every morning, inviting us to be so foolish, so unreasonable, so upside-down as to spend the day making decisions about our lives based on the news that the tomb is astonishingly empty. Maybe we are all called to run with our strange sister, to follow her foolish example as she so bravely and tenaciously speaks the unspeakable, believes the unbelievable, and tells her idle tale to those who may or may not believe. Maybe the best any of us can do, maybe the very thing we have all been called to do, is simply to tell our own peculiar, particular, personal story of faith—All I know is that I believe!—and to make certain that our first-person-singular story of faith somehow and always winds its way back to that most particular of Jesus-stories: his Friday and Sunday, his dying and rising, his service and his salvation.

After all, I am who I am (a “believer”), and I trust in God the way I trust (a “Christian”), because the news has come to me that he died on a Friday and was raised up on a Sunday, and because of all the shocking and life-giving implications that flow from those two strange and sacred days, one of them is this: Even I have become a child of God through these gracious events. And then it occurs to me: Perhaps this, finally, is the real locus of my embarrassment, that even I—skeptic, sinner, slow-to-believe I—have been swept up in this awesome idle tale, swept up and saved by the One who died my death and lives my life.

Whether my nice neighbor actually believes this whole holy mess is probably not up to me, and thank God for that. No, really. A story so strange and so saving can only be hatched and hallowed by a Holy Spirit who broods over both is telling and its hearing. That much I know.

The only thing I can do, and maybe the only thing that the Lord finally asks of each of us, dear sisters and brothers, is that in our worship and work, in our prayers and ponderings, we would regularly go to Jesus’ Friday tomb, bringing with us all our fears and faithlessness, our grief and confusions, our disbelief and doubt … that we would go there to that tomb (Our tomb!) and, like our sister of old, that we would again and again be assaulted and awakened by its starkly missing contents … that we would awake each morning ready to imagine what impossible new thing God can and will do today, even as we wait and work for a time soon coming when God will work that final impossible possibility—a new heaven, and a new earth. This is, as best I understand it, the idle tale we tell.

I am at once embarrassed and emboldened.

Come Mary Magdalene.
Come with me this day.
Teach me to see what you saw.
Teach me to hear what you heard.

Teach me how to tell our idle-Easter tale.