It is so good to see so many of you in church today. It warms this priest’s heart and makes me want to say, “Alleluia!” again and again.
As I have watched everyone practicing and rehearsing, and busy preparing for the events of Holy Week and Easter, it seemed to me a re-enactment of this morning’s gospel.
Imagine the scene: everyone was still in deep shock and grief over what had just happened to their beloved Jesus. But, they went about the things that needed to be done: preparing the spices and the linen shroud for the body. Cooking meals for the mourners who would, no doubt, stop by to whisper condolences laced with fear and anxiety and unspoken questions.
What would they do? What would happen to them now?
And then, at early dawn, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women went to the tomb to care for the body of Jesus, as was the custom in those days. And lo, they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body.
They, were of course, perplexed by this, but then two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. Imagine their terror!
The two men gently chided them and said, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” And then they said, “He is risen!”
That was not the end of the chiding disbelief the women faced. When they returned from the tomb and told the eleven disciples what they had seen and heard, they dismissed it as ‘an idle tale.’
But Peter, the one who denied Jesus three times, got up and ran – ran! – to the tomb. And when he looked in, lo! He saw for himself that the tomb was empty. He was, scripture tells us, ‘amazed’.
Amazed! I have no doubt.
We are very good, I think, at preparing for the resurrection, but not so good about telling the story of how the resurrection of Jesus has impacted our lives. Perhaps, if we were, Christianity would be more alive for us now, as it was then for the ancients of our faith.
As I was preparing this sermon, reading over the gospel and praying over the scripture, I did something I don’t do very often. This year, I asked God a very pointed question.
I said, “God, what do you want me to tell them – the people of St. Paul’s in Chatham, NJ? What word do you want me to preach, that your church might flourish and grow?”
Now, I don’t often admit this, but sometimes, when I ask God a direct question like that, I do actually hear an answer. This was one of those times.
And yes, it is unnerving. I don’t want to spook you out or make you think that I have gone over the edge, but this is what I heard God say, “Tell them to tell their own idle tales.”
Idle tales. That’s what scripture tells us how the apostles dismissed the women’s story of the empty tomb. As an ‘idle tale.’ I suspect that’s exactly what inhibits many of us from telling the story of ‘the hour we first believed’.
You probably have the same hesitancy I did in telling you about my conversations with God. People will dismiss it as an idle tale. Or, worse, the quiet ravings of a fringe lunatic.
Or, horror of horrors, that you’re trying to ‘evangelize’ them. And, we all know what THAT means. No more lazy Sunday mornings over a third ‘cuppa Joe’ and the NY Times. There goes the golf or tennis or brunch date.
Or, horror of even more horrors, someone is going to have to give some money to the church.
So, when God said to me, “Tell them to tell their own idle tales,” I said to God, “Erum . . . excuse me . . . but, with all due respect, God. . . . . Really? I mean, you obviously don’t know what life is like in the suburbs. This is a tough crowd. Professional people. Intelligent, well educated people. Busy people. Places to go, people to meet, things to do. And, I should mention, in case you’ve forgotten, we’re Episcopalians, for God’s sake. (Ahem.) I mean – you really want me to tell Episcopalians – your own beloved ‘frozen chosen’ – to start telling the stories of their faith to each other? Really?”
And God said, “Yes. Really.”
This is not an idle tale.
So, I thought I’d make it easier if I told you my own story. Or, at least, one of the stories of how the Resurrection became important in my life, and why the church became so important to me – long before I was ordained.
Because we all don’t have just one resurrection story. When you think about it, you’ll discover you have several.
Oh, I was a dutiful child, accompanying my beloved grandmother to daily mass. I confess that I loved the ritual and the mystery – mass was said in Latin in those days (you know – back when dinosaurs roamed the earth) – but my deeper confession is that I loved the time with my grandmother more than I loved church.
I loved the 15-minute silent walk to church – accompanied only by the sound of our footsteps and the rattle of the rosary beads in the pocket of her apron. I didn’t know beans bout the resurrection and the only things I knew for sure about Jesus was what I heard in the gospels and what I saw depicted in stories about His life in the stained glass windows of the church.
What I learned about Jesus came through experience – usually at very low or very high points in my life – falling in love, the loss of a job, having a child, the death of my grandmother. They were like rumors and innuendos, hints and allegations of the power of the resurrected Lord – just waiting for the full truth to hit my heart and my soul.
That time came shortly after my divorce. I was devastated. I felt a total, complete, utter failure. While I knew in my heart that it was the right thing to do, I also knew that I had alienated some people, hurt others and made some people very, very angry.
I was living at Mt. Dessert Island – Bar Harbor, Maine – a place to which I had run to heal.
It was, I was to discover, my empty tomb.
Ms. Conroy had tried to take me to church – The Episcopal Church, of all places – but thus far, I had successfully avoided her. The last place I wanted to go was the one place I thought I’d hear more judgment, experience more guilt, listen to pleasant platitudes and receive pat answers to the difficult questions of my heart and soul.
So, one Sunday evening I took myself up to Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor. There is a place there called “Thunder Hole” – a natural alcove in the rocks by the ocean. When the tide is just right, the surf rushes in to the alcove and sounds, well, like thunder.
I arrived just before sunset. As it happened, the tide was also coming in. I sat on the rocks and poured out my heart to the Jesus of my youth, who had been killed by my own cynicism and darkness.
I wept so hard and so long that I didn’t notice the miracle that was happening right before my eyes. I was all alone on the rocks, but suddenly, I heard a voice say, “Look up!”
Instead, I looked around to see where the voice was coming. There was no one there. “Look up!” it said again. And so I did.
There, in front of me, was the sun – a huge round orb glowing in soft tones of red and blues and mauve – perched, it seemed, right on the very edge of the horizon.
The shifting waves stirred under this magnificent globe and came crashing into the alcove on the rocks beneath me. “BOOM!” I heard.
“BOOM!” This was, indeed, Thunder Hole.
And then a great rogue wave found its way to me and splashed me – soaking me completely though.
“BOOM!” I heard again, and there was another splash of cold seawater, drenching my hair and my face this time, the salt water stinging my eyes.
“BOOM!” said the ocean again, and as I wiped my eyes I looked up and the sun was dancing its way down into the deep sea, glowing brilliantly all the while.
And then I heard the voice of Jesus say, “I have baptized you and you are my own. I will never let you go. I will always put a light in the sky so that the darkness will never overcome you. When you are afraid, just look up to the heavens. Look up. I am there.”
The sun was setting but as I looked up, I could see the moon beginning to rise.
And I wept – but this time for joy.
In that moment, I knew that the ‘divine spark’ within me that the New Age folk talked about was real. I knew that it had a name. That name was Jesus.
I knew that Jesus was alive in my life – in me. I knew that He had faith in me when I didn’t have faith in Him or myself.
I knew that I would make it through this dark time, and any dark time that happened to cross the path my life would take in the future.
It was my moment of resurrection. A moment when I had moved through a death and into new life. A moment when I knew that the details didn’t matter.
You know, here’s the truth about Easter: It doesn’t matter whether or not you believe that the resurrection of Jesus was bodily or metaphorical.
It doesn’t matter whether you believe it is just a myth or the Truth (capitol T). The truth about the resurrection is that it happened no matter what you believe. It is a gift.
You don’t have to do anything to ‘earn’ it or ‘deserve’ it. It’s a gift, freely and generously given and mostly undeserved.
The truth is that, no matter how empty the empty tombs of our lives, Jesus is waiting for us among the living. No matter how dark the times of our lives, Jesus is there to light the way. As St. Peter says in our first lesson from Acts, “God shows no partiality . . . Jesus is Lord of all.”
And, in telling that idle tale, that message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee. And, it can spread throughout Chatham and Madison, Short Hills and Summit, Morristown and Millburn and New Providence.
It starts with one. It starts with me. It starts with you.
So, here’s my Easter message to you: tell the idle tales of your resurrection experiences. It doesn’t matter if you think it’s idle or lame. It doesn’t have to be like mine. You may never hear a voice that you identify as Divine. You may have heard that voice and not known what it is, exactly.
Tell your story anyway.
Grandmothers and Grandfathers, tell your children and grandchildren. Mothers and fathers, tell your sons and daughters. Each one teach one, as we used to say in the 60s.
That is how the gospel is spread.
That is why people will come to church – not because of the shiny silver and brass or the beautiful flowers but because the Risen Christ is known to people who worship here.
Well, some of us. Some of us don’t really know it yet – or what to make of it. It’s so scary, some of us hide it behind bright smiles and pleasant chatter.
If you are new to this church, and ask someone here why they come here, they will probably tell you that the community is ‘warm and welcoming’.
That’s what all Episcopalians say. Well, yes, of course. Who would come to any place that was ‘cold and uninviting’?
What has that to do with faith and belief?
Don’t let them get away with that. Make them go deeper. Make them move past the surface pleasantries and the social club mentality and the consumer religion.
That stuff is just fueled by anxiety.
Ask them how they know Jesus in this church. Ask them to tell you the ‘idle tale’ of their faith. Because, you know, they will, if asked.
Indeed, I think they are dying to be asked. And, we’ll all be the better for the telling of the idle tales of our lives of faith.
Author Clarissa Pinkola Estes has a version of the Creation Story which explains that God created humankind because what God loves best is a story.
And there is nothing like the life of a human being to produce a good story.
Stories, she says, can heal the world.
I believe that, when we, like Mary of Magdala and Joanna and Mary the mother of James, keep the sacred rituals of our faith, something happens. It may not happen today. Or tomorrow. Or even the days and months and years after that, but something will happen one day that will bring it all together.
It may be an experience in nature. It may be something some one says to you. It may be discovering love again after you thought love had broken your heart for the very last time.
But someday, something will happen in the midst of the mundane that will mend your broken heart, lift your fallen spirit and fill the empty tombs of your life.
Today is a day for miracle and celebration. Today is a day for telling the stories of your faith. Be not afraid. Be, instead, amazed.
Find an empty tomb in your life and run to it. Jesus is not among the dead but among the living.
And, he is waiting for you.