Monday, April 09, 2007

An idle tale: Luke's Easter story

J. Barry Vaughn. Episcopal Church of the Ascension (Birmingham, AL). Easter Day (April 8, 2007).

Text: “…these words seemed to them an idle tale and they did not believe them.” (Luke 24.11)

Once upon a time not so very long ago in a place not far from here a man was having his morning coffee and reading the paper when he looked out the window and saw a sleek, white unicorn with a golden horn in the middle of its forehead eating the daisies in his garden. He went upstairs, awakened his wife and said, “There’s a unicorn in the garden.” Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she crossly said, “You woke me up just to tell me there’s a unicorn in the garden? Don’t be ridiculous. Unicorns are mythical beasts.”

So he went back downstairs and looked out the window. Even though his wife had informed him that unicorns are mythical beasts, the unicorn was still there, drinking from the birdbath. So he went back upstairs and said, “It’s really beautiful. You should come downstairs and see the unicorn.” “You are a nut,” she said, “And I’m going to have you locked up.” So while he went back downstairs to find some oats to give the unicorn, his wife was dialing 911. “My husband has completely lost it,” she told the operator. “He says there’s a unicorn in the garden, and I want to have him locked up.” So the police arrived, accompanied by an ambulance. “Excuse me,” they said to the man when he opened the door, “but your wife called and told us that you had seen a unicorn in the garden.” “That’s ridiculous,” the man said, “Unicorns are mythical beasts.” And as the police carried his wife away kicking and screaming, the man took a bucket of oats out to the garden to feed the unicorn. (NB: Most readers will recognize that I've borrowed James Thurber's story, "The Unicorn in the Garden" with a few small changes.)

According to Luke the women who returned from the tomb and told Jesus’ apostles about his resurrection got much the same reaction from the apostles that the man got from his wife. Luke tells us that the apostles thought “these words seemed … an idle tale.”

Luke begins with one angelic announcement and ends with another. “The power of the Most High shall come upon you,” Gabriel said to Mary, “and you shall conceive and bear a son and shall call him Jesus.” And it must have seemed like an idle tale to Mary. “To you is born this day in the city of David a savior who is the Messiah, the Lord,” the angels announced to the shepherds in the fields near Bethlehem who probably were at least as shocked to find themselves serenaded by angels as the man was to find a unicorn in his garden.

Jesus himself was quite the spinner of tales. “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and was set upon by thieves who left him beaten and bloody by the side of the road. A priest and a Levite on their way to serve in the temple passed by him, but a Samaritan took pity on him, cleaned and bandaged his wounds, and took him to a place where he could rest and recover.” “Ridiculous!” the religious leaders scoffed, “You might as well expect us to believe you saw a unicorn in the garden as to believe a …a… a man like that would go out of his way to help a traveler who had been beaten up.”

So Jesus told another story. “After getting his inheritance in advance and spending it all on cheap wine, fast living, and loose women, a young man suddenly found himself broke and hungry and tempted to eat the same slop he was feeding to the hogs. So he resolved to go back home to his father and sign on as a hired hand on the family farm. But lo and behold, when he rounded the last curve in the highway, his father spotted him, ran out to greet him, hugged him, gave him a new set of clothes, and threw a party to celebrate his return.” “Jesus,” the religious leaders said, “your ideals are admirable but you are unrealistic. You are advocating moral anarchy. That young man had forfeited his claim on his father’s forgiveness. No parent in his right mind would let such a rebellious and disobedient child return without at least giving him a stern lecture.”

About 300 years ago, the world decided that there were no unicorns in the garden and that dead men do not rise again. That was the beginning of the Enlightenment or Age of Reason. Now, the Enlightenment did much good. It encouraged toleration among persons of different faiths; it promoted a skeptical attitude toward the rule of monarchs that helped produce the American Revolution; and it gave us a multitude of new tools for understanding and shaping our world. But it eliminated unicorns and went a long way toward eliminating Easter, too.

Prior to the Enlightenment, people believed that the planets were moved around the sun by angels. But Sir Isaac Newton, a devout Christian, by the way, discovered and systematically explained the laws of gravitation and motion that account for the movements of the planets around the sun. I can just imagine someone saying to Newton, “But, Sir Isaac, are you saying that angels do not exist?” “No,” he might reply, “angels may very well exist, but if you want to understand how and why the planets move around the sun, you will have to take calculus.” So that leaves me out. I can’t make head or tail of calculus but I liked the idea of angels rolling the planets around the sun like so many celestial bowling balls. Now the angels have flown away leaving the universe a duller and less beautiful place.

The 20th century was supposed to be the time when reason would finally triumph over religion, when the idea that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead would seem as obsolete and unbelievable as unicorns, but the joke is on those who predicted the swift and certain demise of religion. Not only is Christianity flourishing but the 20th century turned out to be anything but an age of reason.

The irony of the 20th century is that people dismissed the resurrection as an idle tale but believed so many far more preposterous ideas. For much of the 20th century half the human race was at least nominally committed to the idea that religion was just the “opium of the people” and was an illusion perpetuated by the wealthy to keep the poor content in this world. Hitler and his Nazi thugs swept to power by telling an idle but powerful and pernicious tale about ethnic superiority. Western capitalism fostered the idle tale that great wealth can be amassed without an equally great responsibility to use that wealth responsibly and see to the need of others. The advertisers and marketers that keep capitalism spinning along make their living by promoting belief in idle tales. They want us to believe that if we drink Budweiser, smoke Camels, and drive Fords then we will be young and attractive forever.

The problem is not that we believe too much but that we believe too much of the wrong things and too little of the right things. We believe that like the prodigal son we have squandered our inheritance in a far country by spending it on every imaginable vice but we don’t believe that our heavenly Father stands at the gate of heaven, arms wide to embrace us as soon as we set our feet on the path towards home. We believe that everyone will pass by us as we lay bruised and beaten by the side of life’s highway but we don’t believe that a Good Samaritan named Jesus went out of his way to bind our wounds and take us to a place of safety. And we believe that Jesus died on the cross because that’s what happens to goodness in this world. Perfect goodness does not fit in this world and threatens the powers that be, so they nailed Jesus to the Cross. We understand that; we believe it; and it makes sense. But what seems as strange and unbelievable as a unicorn in the garden is the angel’s message to the women who came to the tomb to prepare Jesus’ body for its long sleep. “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here; he is risen!”

Why is it so difficult for us to believe the angel’s good news? Sometimes it is difficult for us to believe because life has been so hard. We have been kicked around and beaten up more times than we can remember and no Good Samaritan has come along to help us. But more often, I think, we find it hard to believe the Easter story because life has been good and rich and rewarding.

While visiting Duke University, a student asked theologian Carlyle Marney to explain the resurrection of the dead. “Marney replied, "I will not discuss that with people like you." "Why not?" asked the student. "I don't discuss such matters with anyone under 30," Marney said. "Look at you, in the prime of life, potent - never have you known honest-to-God failure, heart-burn, impotency, solid defeat, brick walls, mortality. So what can you know of a dark world which only makes sense if Christ is raised?"

The problem with the Enlightenment is that it gave us tools to understand how the planets move in their courses but did nothing to help us heal the wounds in our hearts. For that we need a story, a story we will not be able to prove by the rules of logic, but which is true nonetheless.

Like the story of the unicorn in the garden, the New Testament also tells us of a garden. In the New Testament’s garden there was no unicorn. After all, they really ARE mythical beasts! But in the New Testament’s garden there is an angel and empty tomb. “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” the angel asks us as he asked the women. Why, indeed? Because it is safer? Because we are afraid that people will think we are as crazy as someone who sees a unicorn eating the daisies in his garden? So what? People all around believe in things far crazier and for which there is much less evidence than the resurrection of Jesus.

So be up and doing. There is work for us to do and we have a rendezvous in Galilee.