Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
It’s quite a story we tell today. While it may be new to some of you, others of you – like me – have been looking forward all year to hearing it again.
Jesus having died back on Friday, and the Sabbath not being an appropriate day for final burial preparations, the women arrive at the tomb early Sunday morning to get to work. Arms full of spices, sleeves rolled up, for the sad task of embalming their dear friend and teacher.
When they get there, instead of a dead body, they find an empty tomb, and men in dazzling clothes offering them these strange, but encouraging words: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? Don’t you remember what he told you? He is risen!” The women run back to relay the joyful tidings to “the eleven” (that’s the 12 disciples, minus poor Judas) and to the rest.
As adults we can get caught up sometimes in analyzing stories, in debating this or that detail, or wondering why it was told in such and such a way. But think about how children respond to a well-told story. Those of you who are parents or grandparents, those of you who are teachers, you know. The minute you finish their favorite book, what’s a child most likely to say? “Again! Again! Tell it again!” No matter that they’ve heard it a hundred times. No matter that they’ve got the whole story memorized by now. The hearing of it – again – brings them such joy. So moms and grandpas and patient teachers, when time and stamina allow, indulge that desire when we can. We flip back to page 1, and we tell their favorite story again.
It occurs to me that our whole church calendar is connected to that same basic desire, even if we’re far too grown up to be curled up on our parents’ laps with a stack of toddler-sized board books. Because we know that the very best stories are well worth hearing again and again.
So back to today’s story….
It doesn’t surprise me a bit that those eleven disciples would have trouble believing the women who’d just come from the empty tomb. For any of them, it would have been one thing to hear Jesus talk about his resurrection ahead of time, and quite another to believe it had actually happened. How would you have reacted if the women came running to tell you what they’d seen and heard?
Here’s what Anna Carter Florence has to say about the women’s words seeming to the disciples an idle tale:
"Alas, [she says,] The disciples, I am sorry to tell you, are not as receptive to this news as we might have hoped. In fact, they are less than supportive. You might even say that for one wildly out-of-character moment, they forget their disciple manners and resort to the subtle cadences of a high school locker room: “Yeah? Well that sounds like a load of !@#$%^&!* to me.” (Luke 24:11) Translators of Luke have clearly tried to play this down…[“an idle tale” indeed!] But the Greek word in question is leiros, which means “nonsense,” “drivel,” “trash,” “garbage…'"
And a host of colorful English equivalents – hence the !@#$%^&!* in her paraphrase of the text.
It’s a perfectly natural reaction. And those of us who are most familiar with the story - who’ve heard it told again and again - would do well to sit with the skeptics for awhile. The Easter story defies logic and explanation. It sounds too good to be true. If it weren’t these things, it wouldn’t be Easter. I mean, trees budding and birds chirping and eggs hatching – all those signs of springtime, we can explain. But Jesus on the third day wasn’t at all like a daffodil bulb pushing up toward the sunshine! The Easter story almost has to sound like leiros (nonsense) to be worth anything at all. The fact that it cannot be explained scientifically is precisely the point! Because any God worth worshipping is going to be capable of doing things we mortals cannot explain! Let’s not get caught in the trap of trying to make it sound perfectly reasonable.
I just love that the unlikeliness of their story doesn’t deter the women at the tomb. They could have huddled just outside the walls of the graveyard, weighed the pros and cons of actually blurting out this bizarre thing they’d seen, and opted instead to let someone else stumble upon the empty tomb and take it from there. That they didn’t take the easy way out tells me they couldn’t help but spread the word. They had witnessed something that needed to be told.
There’s also something marvelous that happens in our text between verses 11 and 12. I’m not sure if you caught it? Verse 11 – the women’s words seem to the eleven disciples a load of bunk, Peter of course being one of those eleven. Verse 12 – But Peter got up and ran to the tomb. Why’d he go, do you think? To prove them wrong? Why would he need to, if he already knew it to be impossible? Or was there just enough room in Peter’s imagination to wonder… to doubt his own judgment of leiros (nonsense) … to think it really might be as the women had said?
In conversations about faith and doubt in the church, we often talk about doubts that challenge or complicate our faith. Well, here’s a case where doubt was the very thing that brought Peter back – not only back to the tomb, but back to wonder and amazement, back to a place of openness to what Jesus had been telling them all along, back to the hope that what seemed impossible was actually possible. All because he left that door of curiosity open just a crack.
Martin Copenhaver tells it this way: “’Nonsense!’ says Peter, and with that he is off like a shot.... I love the juxtaposition of those two reactions (“Nonsense!” and “Let’s check it out!”) because I think it says a great deal about the mix of belief and disbelief that [is part of] every subsequent Easter as well. The head may say, “Nonsense,” but then our eager and running feet bring us here” to see for ourselves.
It’s quite a story we tell today, and it contains the best news we could possibly hear. God wins. Love wins. Life conquers death. No wonder we look forward to telling it again every year.
I don’t need to tell you how badly we need to hear this news today. You pay attention to what’s happening in our country right now. You know the horrific cost that evil and violence and sin and death are exacting in so many places. We need a resurrection story. We need to hear – again – that goodness is stronger than evil, that love is stronger than hate, that light is stronger than darkness, that truth is stronger than lies.
We need it. And our children need it.
Although I have to say I’ve heard an awful lot of them reminding us in recent weeks. Our children and teenagers have themselves been telling stories that need to be told and retold. I hope you’ve had a chance to hear not only their heartbreak but also the tremendous hope they’ve been proclaiming. Reminding us that we don’t have to live in a tragic state of Good Friday forever, where horrific acts of violence are accepted as if they’re unavoidable. “No!” They’re shouting. “No! That’s a lie. We can choose a vastly safer world.”
And sure, some will call the brave children’s words leiros, foolish nonsense, just as many disbelieved the brave women who shared what they’d witnessed at Jesus’ tomb. Death’s allies are pretty powerful. Always have been. When we’ve lived in their shadow long enough, we start to believe that Good Friday is just the way it is. That innocents suffering gruesome deaths cannot be avoided. That there are no alternatives.
But the naysayers may have forgotten about a little thing called Easter Sunday. All over our country this morning, all around the world today, are people singing and praying and shouting and cheering and waving their Alleluias. We’re doing all of this to celebrate the most unlikely of all possible endings to a story – Jesus marching right out of his own grave! We’re doing all of this because we know we don’t need to continue living in the gruesome violence of Good Friday. Not when the God of life has given us Easter.
There’s a reason video clips of our children telling their stories have gone viral. Like all of the best stories, they ring true. Like all of the best stories, our hearts and our spirits long to hear them again and again. Call me crazy, but I think it’s also because we know Easter truth when we hear it. And we can spot a resurrection story when we see it marching down the mall in DC.
Easter truth will always have people wondering: is it possible? Did it, can it really happen?
But I suspect those of us who aren’t quite sure about the resurrection of Jesus wouldn’t be here at all this morning if we didn’t have at least a little of Peter’s healthy doubt. “Nonsense! But let me check it out just in case…”
And those of us who believe the resurrection is true generally have experiences that confirm our trust in the story, that help us “find [our] place in the history of [God’s] grace.” Once we’ve had those experiences of new life, of despair-turned-into-hope, we too are called to share what we know.
A gentleman got up to lead a children’s message in his church with a borrowed bank sign hung around his neck. It said simply: “Teller.” His point, of course, was that we are all called to be tellers of God’s mighty acts, tellers of God’s grace, tellers of the seemingly impossible that turned out, with God, to be possible after all.
If you suspect the story the women told the disciples was “an idle tale,” a bunch of leiros, foolish nonsense, I’m grateful you have enough doubt to wonder and listen to the women’s testimonies and try to experience Easter for yourself.
And if you’re here today because you have experienced in your own life the truth of the Easter story, put that “Teller” sign around your neck and get to work: Tell it! And then – again! again! – I beg you to tell it again. Because we desperately need resurrection stories right now.
Tell the world that the women who shared what they’d seen and heard at the empty tomb had it right.
Tell the world when the kids marching in the streets have it right.
Goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate, truth is stronger than lies… and what’s more, life can even triumph over death.
It’s quite a story we tell on Easter – Jesus, marching right out of his own grave! If it rings true, it’s because we know that even today the God of resurrection is still on the loose in the world, inspiring his children – inspiring our children – and reminding us not to give up hope.
The forces of violence and death are powerful, I know. Always have been. But don’t believe anyone who tells you we have to live in Good Friday forever. We are Easter people. And we mustn’t be afraid to tell, and tell, and tell again what we believe to be possible, because the God of resurrection is on the loose: Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
 Anna Carter Florence, Preaching as Testimony, p. 118
 Martin B. Copenhaver, “Easter Nonsense,” in Journal for Preachers, Easter 2007, p. 19
 Matthew West song, “Thirteen”