worship

An Idle Tale
Dr. Baron Mullis
March 27, 2016 - 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; Luke 24:1-12

 

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An Idle Tale                                                                    
1 Corinthians 15:19-26; Luke 24:1-12        
Dr. Baron Mullis
Morningside Presbyterian Church
March 27, 2016

 

You and I know a tall tale when we hear one, don’t we?  They are such a part of American folklore – you recognize them: Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, Pecos Bill, Brer Rabbit for a southern spin – tall tales and ghost stories are part of our frontier history of passing time by the hearth on cold winters’ nights, or filling the evening on the cattle drive under the stars.  We know a tall tale, and even fairy tale the minute we hear it, don’t we?

We also know an utter load of hogwash.  My parents to this day swear that the dog really did go to live on a farm in the country. 

A few years ago, when we had our blessing of the animals in the fall here, a very dedicated member of our congregation brought her goldfish in the bowl to the blessing.  At one point during the blessing, I looked over and saw that a very friendly dog was taking a drink from the bowl of what I could only assume was a very traumatized goldfish.  So, I said to her mother, “I strongly suggest that you or her father be prepared with a reserve goldfish – because I suspect that little fishy isn’t going to be long for this world.”

To their credit, they told their daughter the truth when the aforementioned fishy started doing the backstroke a few days later. 

There is a profound sense that if we tell the truth, we should expect to be believed.  And if we are liars or are deceptive, we should expect to be disbelieved.  If we stretch truth beyond all reasonable expectation of credibility, we shouldn’t be surprised when we are discredited. 

But I don’t know why the women in Luke were dismissed as telling an idle tale. 

I suppose it is at least somewhat reasonable that the men would be skeptical –and this is not a Mars/Venus commentary – it’s based on the reasonable assumption that dead people don’t get up when they’re well and thoroughly dead. 

As much as I’d love to channel Miracle Max and give you my best Billy Crystal and claim that Jesus was just mostly dead, that’s not the story. 

Jesus was crucified, dead and buried, so the Bible tells us… so our creeds claim.  He wasn’t mostly dead, he was well and thoroughly dead; he was three days dead. 

It seems an idle tale because dead people don’t get up again. 

When hope has dried up, good news seems an idle tale. 

After the death of his daughter Emily, novelist Peter De Vries penned the exquisitely poignant novel The Blood of The Lamb, where he channeled his own autobiography into the story of Don Wanderhope and his daughter Carol.  It is full of wisdom and pain – I remember well the scene where Don has fallen in love with a cancer patient and he just learned she had died.  He asked his friend the physician whether he believed in a God.  De Vries writes that the oncologist, surely having been asked the question many times before, looked bored, ground his teeth and looked away.  “’Oh, one man’s opinion of this is as good as another’s,’ he said, ‘You believe what you must to stave off the conviction that is all a tale told by an idiot.’”1

Through the months of his daughter’s treatment, Wanderhope walked back and forth past the church of St. Catherine on his way to and from the bar where he drowned his troubles.  On the day of his own daughter’s death, after his seventh or eighth drink, he wandered unsteadily past the church, and remembering a cake that he had seen in the church earlier when he went to pray for his daughter, he retrieved the cake, careening back out into the street, where he snapped his arm back, even in the midst of his inebriated torpor, launched the pastry to his target – striking the figure of Christ above the door.  Watching the icing slide off the figure, De Vries writes, “Then the scene dissolved itself in a mist in which my legs could no longer support their weight, and I sank down to the steps.  I sat on its worn stones, to rest a moment before going on.  Thus Wanderhope was found at that place which for the diabolists of his literary youth and for those with more modest spiritual histories too, was said to be the only alternative to the muzzle of a pistol: the foot of the cross.”2

De Vries rending words strike me as the reason the male disciples dismissed the female disciples good news as an idle tale: when the loss is great enough, good news is hard to hear. 

When the good news is hard to hear, perhaps it comes an idle tale. 

The good news to us today is that Jesus Christ is raised from the dead and in his resurrection lies the hope of our own. 

Surely the Apostle Paul encountered this reticence to believe in the resurrection in his ministry to the church in Corinth.  The early church also had no shortage of doubt in the resurrection – indeed, had possibly come to see it is secondary to other claims within the Gospel – but it isn’t secondary – the resurrection is the heart of the Gospel and so Paul wrote this letter to the church that he loved – and sought to interject a little urgency into the question of the resurrection.  Richard Hays writes, “He wants them to consider the full consequences of denying the resurrection of the dead: those who have gone to their graves hoping in Christ have simply gone into limbo.  These horrifying inferences lead up to a chilling conclusion: ‘If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all peopled most to be pitied.’”3

My friend Tom Long tells a story of an Easter Sunday worship service that he attended some years back.  For whatever reason the preacher of the day, a guest, began in his sermon to chip away at the resurrection.  I don’t know why he was chipping away at the resurrection – I’ve never heard the sermon in question.  I know that there are lots of reasons that people chip away at the resurrection – perhaps the good news seems to good to be true.  Perhaps the loss is so great that the words come as an idle tale – but for whatever reason, he was chipping away at the resurrection.  Then Tom said, he heard a voice from behind him slowly, quietly repeating one line, over and over.  Another worshipper behind him was chanting under her breath, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are most to be pitied.” 

Is it hard to sustain faith? Sure it is.  Is it hard to take the good news and live it?  Sure it is! 

Grace is free, and you can’t earn God’s love – it’s free too – but don’t let anyone sell you a bill of goods that everything is always easy.

It reminds me of that great scene in the movie A League of their Own, it’s the where Dottie Hinson tells Jimmy Dugan that she’s quitting baseball because it just got too hard.  And Jimmy replies, “It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard... is what makes it great.”

Folks, faith is free, but don’t ever let anybody tell you it’s always easy.  It takes work.  It takes cultivation.  It takes repeating the tale, even if others call it idle.  The hard is what makes it great!

There are plenty of ways to make a tale turn idle.  You know a few – I don’t need to plunge our Easter joy into the icy waters of reality to remind you too harshly.  You know the places of violence and terror – they are too easy to remember – they are too present – in a world where terrorist’s bombs just keep going off and we witness the degradation of human and civil rights with astonishing proximity and regularity - and if we have hoped in Christ for this life only, we are most to be pitied. 

Faith is a gift.  It takes cultivation, but is always a gift – and it is a gift that is yours to share. 

But notice this: when the women were dismissed as telling an idle tale - Luke tells us right away - that Peter ran to the tomb and looked in and he found it empty. 

Tell the tale – even if others call it idle.  Tell the tale.  Who knows who will hear? 

Live the tale – who knows who will see? 

Have you ever seen the film Babette’s Feast?  It’s wonderful – and it’s as plain an allegory for the gospel as I have ever seen. 

Two elderly sisters, Martine, named for Martin Luther, and her sister, Phillippa, named for Philip Melancthon, which pretty much tells you what you need to know about them, live together in a home in Jutland.  They have spent their lives delaying or denying their own happiness in order to care for aging parents, or others, and have always done what was expected of them. 

They are the remaining dowager members of the founding family of the parish church. 

In the course of the plot, an acquaintance brings to them a woman, a refugee named Babette, who is fleeing the political violence of 19th century Paris.  Martine and Philippa agree to take Babette in, and for many years she serves as their cook and housekeeper. 

In the meantime, during her absence from Paris, a friend has each year bought for Babette a lottery ticket.  After 14 years as their cook, she wins the lottery.  Her winnings are ten thousand francs. 

As a gesture of friendship and thanksgiving, Babette decides that she will use her proceeds to pay for a dinner for the sisters who have shown her such kindness through the years and she secures the sisters’ willingness to be a part of her meal.  She leaves with their blessing and goes to Paris to procure the necessary provisions for the party at hand.  In her absence the exotic and expensive ingredients are delivered to the remote community, for the meal which is set to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the church’s founding.  Fearing they would indulge in the sin of sensuous pleasure, but fearing as well that they offend and hurt their friend, the invited guests determine they will eat Babette’s feast, but take no pleasure in it. 

The evening of the feast arrives, and as one of the guests savors the food prepared for their enjoyment, he remarks that he has not enjoyed such food since he was at the Café Anglais in Paris. 

The meal is, of course, a parable, and it’s message is not wasted on the austere guests.  Despite their resolve, the artistry, the power of the food breaks over them like waves. The epicurean power of the meal breaks down their distrust and superstitions, elevating them not only physically but spiritually. Old wrongs are forgotten, ancient loves are rekindled, and a mystical redemption of the human spirit settles over the table.  The meal becomes Eucharistic, as the infinite grace with which it is given overwhelms their reservations. 

As in any good parable, the lesson is only confirmed when it is revealed that in fact, their housekeeper Babette is the famed chef de cuisine of the Café Anglais. 

The coup de grace of the parable comes when the sisters, assuming that Babette will now leave them and return to her former life in Paris, learn the cost of the meal: ten thousand francs.  Astonished and overwhelmed, Martine declares, “but now you will be poor all your life!” 

And Babette replies, “An artist is never poor.”

And so it is true of faith and so-called idle tales – they don’t deplete, they only build. 

Tell the tale – even if others call it idle.  Tell the tale.  Who knows who will hear? 

Live the tale – who knows who will see? 

People will dismiss it.  Tell it anyway.  People will indulge you, so as not to hurt your feelings.  Tell it anyway.  Your own faith may ebb and flow.  Tell it anyway - the story will come back around to you when you need it. 

Because this story, this resurrection story, is the foundation of faith. 

Dr. Arthur John Gossip preached a famous sermon years ago entitled, “When Life Tumbles In, What Then?”  He preached it the day after his wife’s death, and he closed with these words, that I leave with you today:

“I don’t think you need to be afraid of life.  Our hearts are very frail, and there are places where the road is very steep and lonely, but we have a wonderful God.  And as Paul puts it, ‘What can separate us from his love”  Not death,’ he writes immediately.  No, not death, for standing in the roaring Jordan, cold with its dreadful chill and, conscious of its terror, of its rushing, I, too, like Hopeful in Pilgrim’s Progress, can call back to you who one day will have your turn to cross it, ‘Be of good cheer, my brother, for I feel the bottom, and it is sound.’”

The foundation of our faith is the resurrection. 

Christ is risen, he is risen ideed… Is it an idle tale?  Not to God…

Christ is risen, he is risen indeed… It is an idle tale to us? 

Only if we let it be.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.

 


1 Peter De Vries, The Blood of the Lamb. (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1961) p111
2 Ibid.  238
3 Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians in Interpretation, Mays, Miller and Achtemeier, eds.  (John Knox Press, Louisville, 19970 p261.

Last Published: April 4, 2016 11:23 PM