But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. (Luke 24:11)
The other day I sat in on a discussion at St. James School with a handful of our 5th and 6th grade students there and a fairly well-known author. We sometimes have visitors who come to speak to the students about their pursuits and accomplishments. We’ve had an Olympic rower, an IronMan triathlete, and the head of a local private school, among others, and most recently this author who is a writer of short stories. He talked with the students about how you tell a story, and he suggested that first you start with an interesting idea – for instance, let’s say there is a dog who has two heads, that’s interesting. Next, he suggested, you start to ask questions about the dog with two heads: how did the dog get two heads? The kids offered their own questions, too. Do the two heads like each other? Does one head of the dog try to eat the other head’s food?
Right, said the author, and what happens next? This question, he told us, is crucial because, of course, it’s what keeps the story interesting, and a story that people will read is a story that continues to get interesting, where the stakes keep getting higher.
Boring stories never go anywhere – maybe you have a friend, like I do, who likes to tell stories that never seem to go anywhere. They start well, and you are listening, waiting for him to get to the good part, but the good part never comes, the stakes never get higher, and soon your interest wanes, because nothing happens next. It is an idle tale.
St. Luke tells us that the disciples first greeted the news of the resurrection as though it was an idle tale. I take it that this could mean a couple of things. To begin with, it could mean that the story is just untrue – a lie. And I think that probably many who heard the news that the women brought back from the empty tomb assumed just that – it is a lie. But even after some of the details of the story are verified – Peter goes to the tomb and finds it just as the women reported – the possibility that the story of Jesus’ resurrection is an idle tale remains, because the question remains, what happens next? And if nothing much happens next, then it is still more or less an idle tale.
If this question was pressing to those who first learned the good news of the resurrection, then it is no less pressing to us today. Is the Gospel if Jesus an idle tale or isn’t it? Is it a lie – as many these days contend that it is? And, even if the tomb was empty and Jesus was raised from the dead, so what? What happens next?
Well, we know what happens next in some ways: Jesus hangs around for forty days, St Paul tells the story to anyone who will listen and the church grows, Constantine legitimizes the faith and the church expands, Eastern and Western Christians fight over minutia and the church splits in two, Martin Luther has a hammer and he isn’t afraid to use it when there is a nail and a door around, Henry VIII has a mistress and he isn’t afraid to marry her (as long as he can get a divorce!), and so on and so on and so on.
And all of those are good stories, and many others – BUT, they still could be idle tales to YOU, if you can’t answer the question in your own life: what happens next? Because, let’s face it, in life the stakes are always getting higher – more is on the line today than it was yesterday, for most of us. So if the story of Jesus, and the news of his resurrection isn’t any more than an idle tale, who’s got time for it?
OK, maybe you were baptized long ago when you were an infant, but you can’t remember a thing about it – what happened next? Maybe nothing happened. Maybe there was a brunch and then you had your second birthday, and you grew up, and nothing happened next, and you haven’t given it a second thought since then. In this case, so far the whole thing may seem to you like an idle tale.
But maybe the story unfolded in a different way. Maybe when you were a kid you got very, very sick. Maybe you were in the hospital. Maybe they didn’t know if you would make it. Maybe your mom and your dad went to bed every night with tears on their pillows offering the only prayer they could: Please God, make her well, let her live! Please, let what happens next be OK!
And maybe, through the skill of doctors and the care of nurses you survived that childhood illness, that’s what happened next. I know people who this has happened to, I bet you do too.
Maybe when you got older you had a great time, you were the life of every party, but then you discovered that partying was starting to control your life, not the other way around. And maybe this cost you your health, and your sanity, and your friends, and your job, and your money, and nearly everything as you slipped deeper and deeper into addiction.
But maybe one day it dawned on you that your life was out of control, and you could not control it, you had no idea what would happen next, but all the options seemed pretty poor, and the only thing you could do was to hand over the reins to God and ask him to take over your life, because so far you had only learned how to throw it away. And maybe recovery has been a gift in your life, the best possible thing that could have happened next.
Or maybe you got married on a beautiful spring day to the love of your life, and everything was peaches and cream, and you looked forward to a lifetime of bliss. But before the kids were even out of diapers the shouting matches between the two of you were interrupted only by long, steely silences that were better maintained from separate bedrooms, and the divorce was ugly, and the fight for the kids left you estranged from them, and none of this was supposed to be the stuff that happened next, but here it had happened, and now you could hardly be more miserable, and you would fall asleep at night wondering over and over, more from fear than hope: what happens next?
Shall I go on? Middle age, and all its challenges; getting older and worrying about money, and sickness, and health, and your grown kids whose lives have not turned out the way they were supposed to; the market collapses, and with it your retirement plans. And you are wondering: what happens next.
And sometimes you pray about it deliberately, sometimes you know that you are relying on God alone, because you know that you don’t have the strength, or the wisdom, or the patience, or the fortitude to navigate it on your own, and you think thing only thing that can happen next is that everything will only ever go downhill…
… but it doesn’t. Somehow light shines in the darkness, hope emerges where there was none, healing happens. mercy is given, forgiveness is found. That’s what happens next.
And then there are the graveyards. There are more people buried in the graveyards of our hearts right here this morning than any of us can count. There are infant children buried here in our hearts today, and there are aged grandparents buried. There are spouses, and lovers, and best friends, and college buddies, there are sisters and brothers, fathers, and so many mothers buried here in our hearts today. There are painful, aching memories, not only of their deaths, but of their dying – sometimes too long and drawn out, sometimes too sudden and alarming. And alongside every one of those deaths there is the haunting question that sometimes seems just as present as it was the day she died – what happens next? Can I survive without him? Will the sun ever shine, and if it does, will I ever want to look at its beams again? Will this sorrow ever get any easier to bear? Will the loneliness ever subside? What happens next?
At times like this, everything in life seems like an idle tale – either an outright lie (Please, don’t try to make me feel better by telling me the sun will come out tomorrow when I know it won’t!), or like that awful question will just be hanging in the air for ever – what happens next?
Hey guys, Jesus is risen, the tomb is empty, isn’t that great!
Well, we’ll see; what happens next?
What happens next is this: that Jesus, having toured the depths of hell during his three-days excursion in death, now begins traveling to all the secret hells that we have set up in our own lives, like little dioramas of misery, some of which we show to anyone who wants to look, and some of which we keep hidden in the darkest corners of our souls. The caption, the script, the banner, the title, the message of all those little hellish scenes is this: What happens next? And it asked with a defiance that suggest the asker knows what happens next: nothing, for faith and hope and love are nothing but an idle tale – told, most often, by an idiot of some degree or another.
I have constructed such hellish dioramas in my own heart. In fact, I am building one right now in my spare time – mostly from the borrowed material of someone I love, and whose life, I fear, is in grave danger quite beyond his control. And nearly every day I wonder, so what happens next? And the question frankly fills me with dread.
But I remember how those first followers of Jesus believed the news of his resurrection – the news that life would and can and does, indeed, triumph over death – how that news seemed, even to those who knew him well, an idle tale.
And I already know that it is not. For I have seen his glory rising time after time in a thousand little Easters that smash our dioramas of hell into little bits and pieces. I have seen it in my own life and in the lives of countless others I have known and heard about. I have felt the warmth of the rising Sun, when I was sure it would never rise again. I have looked into tombs I thought should be over-crowded and found them empty.
And if you never have, then today is the day to look and see that you have been given the strength, or the wisdom, or the patience, or the fortitude to navigate the dark and awful questions that leave you asking in dire hope: what happens next?
What happens next is that Jesus rises again and again from the graves of our lives, bringing hope and new life where there was only ever death and despair. And that is a story worth telling with shouts of Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, for the Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Easter Day 2013
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia