Sunday, 21 April 2019

Easter Sunday: An Idle Tale

Audio version here (with some competition from the children!)
And a bonus - our romp through Philip's arrangement of The Seven Joys of Mary

Detail from the Resurrection window
in Seal Church Lady Chapel
Luke 24.1-12

“But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” 

Just imagine for a moment that you were one of those women who had gone in the early dawn, taking spices to anoint the body of Jesus. What are you thinking and feeling as you walk there? How will you roll the stone away? What condition will the body be in by this time, three days after his death? Who might see you? What trouble might you get into? After all, the rest of his disciples are in hiding, afraid that they will be arrested and killed too. 

Imagine what you feel when you find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. Imagine what you feel when two complete strangers – identified as angels in some of the other gospel accounts – tell you that “he is not here” reminding you of his own words that he would rise on the third day. You’re not given any instructions about what to do next. In some of the gospels the women are told to tell the rest of the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee, but not here. You are left in the lurch, with this awesome, baffling news. What a story you have to tell.

But how will you even begin to tell it?
What will your opening words be?

If you’ve ever had to give someone some big news – good or bad – you’ll know how carefully we tend to think out the beginning of the announcement. 
“There’s something I need to tell you…”
“Perhaps you’d like to sit down…”

Imagine you are one of these women, reeling from what you’ve seen, or rather not seen, at that empty tomb, trying to get your heads around what you have heard. What reaction do you expect as you push open the door to the room where the others are gathered and begin to pour out your story? Surprise, joy, fear ?;  but at the very least, surely interest, questions, demands for more detail. 

But that’s not what happens. Your extraordinary, unimaginable news is dismissed as nonsense, “an idle tale”, without so much as a moment’s thought. The Greek word Luke uses, leros, is about as insulting as it could be. It means rubbish, silliness, something too trivial even to bother with. 

You’ve just told these men that Jesus, their closest companion isn’t in his grave, that you’ve heard that he’s been raised from death as he said he would be, and yet they don’t even ask you to tell them more. Eventually Peter, just Peter, goes and looks for himself, but not before you have been humiliated, written off, treated as if you were all just imagining it, as if your brain had gone soft. How does that feel , not even to get a hearing?

I can understand the apostles not believing the story these women tell. They have seen Jesus die. How can he be alive again? It’s really not what you expect. But to dismiss the women? Not even to consider that their story of the empty tomb might be worth investigating? That seems very odd. Why is it only Peter who bothers to go and look for himself?

The main reason, alas, stares us in the face if we know anything about the culture of this time and place. It is the fact that those who bring them this news are women. Women weren’t considered to be credible witnesses in Israel at this time. In a court of law, their testimony couldn’t stand on its own. Essentially their society treated them as perpetual children, always needing to be under the guidance of a man – their father, husband, son, uncle. Jesus had shown his followers a different way, treating women as equals, with dignity and respect; that’s why they followed him. But old habits die hard, and when they come bursting in with their tale of angels and empty tombs, the old responses rise up readily – silly women, telling silly tales, carried away in some collective delusion. What can you expect? Their brains aren’t up to dealing with hard facts, like the fact that the dead stay dead and stones need burly men to shift them.

The women are silenced, waved away by the other disciples, who are too exhausted, fed up and frightened to find the energy to think outside the boxes their culture has created for them. 

It’s a story which ought to make us wonder about the voices we don’t hear or don’t pay attention to. Today, still, women’s voices often go unheard – the shock waves that the #metoo movement has unleashed have shown that. Women across the world have told tales of harassment and violence, so common to us, as women, that we perhaps took it for granted that everyone knew about them, and yet, what most women live with as a daily reality seems to have come as a surprise to many men.

It’s not just about gender, of course. Out of 881 Nobel Prize winners  since 1901, when the awards began, only 15 have been black, and most of those were Peace prize winners – Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and so on. No black scientist, as far as I can see, has ever won a Nobel prize – are there really none who qualify, and if not, why not? Class and economic status often determine whether your voice is heard too. The residents of Grenfell Tower warned repeatedly of the safety problems in their block, but it took the death of 72 of them in that terrible fire before anyone seems to have taken their voices seriously. Would that have happened if they had been living in a luxury development...? And while I was very glad that the BBC wheeled out David Attenborough to front their documentary on Climate Change last week, it is telling that they felt they had to do so, that the voices of Bangladeshi peasants flooded out of their homes repeatedly, or African farmers whose drought-stricken crops had failed again wouldn’t be enough to make us sit up and take notice, despite the fact that they’ve suffered the reality of climate change for years.  

In our world, just as much as in the world of Luke’s Gospel, some voices seem to have a built in loudspeaker, while others are always turned to mute. 

That makes it all the more extraordinary, though, that all four Gospels insist that the first to know about and to announce the resurrection were women. It is one of the most powerful pieces of evidence to say that something really did happen on that first Easter Day, even if we can’t explain or understand it in any rational way.  If you were going to make up this story, you wouldn’t make it up like this, with a bunch of women at its centre. You’d choose reliable, respectable witnesses, and that would have meant male witnesses in the first century, people who would carry some weight with those you were trying to convince or impress.   

But the Gospel writers don’t. They’re clear and unanimous that it was women who stuck with Jesus when he was crucified, women who found his tomb empty and women who heard the news that he had risen and were the first to announce it. It makes no sense to tell the story like this – unless it happens to be true.  

This ending, with women playing centre stage, is also to be entirely in line with the rest of the life and ministry of Jesus, of course. Luke starts his Gospel with the stories of two marginalised women, Mary the mother of Jesus, a virgin who had no business being pregnant and faced disgrace because of it, and her cousin Elizabeth,  the mother of John the Baptist, who’d been shamed by her society for her childlessness, but now, long past childbearing age, found herself expecting.  Two unlikely women turn the world upside down between them. Mary sings of a God who will “lift up the humble and meek” – people like them – and evidently she taught her son to do just this. He ate with tax-collectors and prostitutes, prioritised the least and the lowest, those others rejected and ignored, and eventually was crucified for his commitment to them. Of course the news of the resurrection would be revealed to women first, even if their voices would almost certainly be doubted and rejected – it’s all of a piece with the rest of the story. Mercifully Peter had the courage to risk the ridicule of his fellows to go and check it out.

“He is not here”, say the angels to the women, when they come looking for Jesus. Notice that they don’t tell the women where he is, only where he isn’t. He isn’t in the place of the dead, they say, in the stone-clad certainty of the tomb, in the world that is bounded by their understanding, or anyone else’s understanding. Something has happened which is beyond all that, which defies explanation, which can’t be boxed into any conceptual containers they already have. God is bigger than our imaginations. “He is not here”, if “here” is the place where we think we have him safely pinned down. 

That becomes clear in the rest of this chapter, the last one in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus turns up on the road to Emmaus, but the tired, dispirited disciples he walks alongside don’t recognise him until he breaks bread with them at supper. They then rush back to Jerusalem with the news, but there they’re surprised again, as he appears in that locked room, giving them his peace and his blessing. 

Luke’s Gospel, from beginning to end, is a litany of surprises. It constantly calls us to look beyond our expectations, to think outside the prison of our assumptions and prejudices. It calls us to turn the world upside down ourselves, so that we can see what it looks like from the underside and hear what it sounds like when we listen to the voices we’ve been deaf to. It calls us to dare to wonder whether life could really be different – our lives, everyone’s lives – if we were to trust in the power of resurrection, not just of Jesus, not just in the physical sense, but the resurrection of hope and joy and love when they seem irretrievably to have been lost to us. 

Like those disciples huddled in that locked room in Jerusalem, though, it’s up to us to decide whether we think this talk of resurrection, this possibility of hope, of joy, of love is just an idle tale, or something that might change our lives.  

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