Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.

Idle Tales

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church – The Rev. Bart Smith
The Resurrection of Christ (April 16, 2017)
Luke 24:1-12 – “Idle Tales”

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the [Human One] must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”

Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

I wonder, how often did this kind of thing happen to those women?

Not the empty tomb, of course—admittedly, that’s the sort of thing that they had not seen before. No, I mean being disbelieved and dismissed by men.

The answer is, of course! It happens all the time.

“Idle tales,” they said.

Yet these women were not just passive bystanders to be dismissed, but active participants in Jesus’ movement. They were disciples. They were involved since the beginning and had been with Jesus and the men throughout the journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. They followed Jesus on his torturous walk to the cross, wailing and mourning. Luke tells us that they stood at a distance as Jesus breathed his last.

Peter, the chief of the Apostles—you remember Peter, the one who said “Lord, I’m ready to go with you, both to prison and to death!” but who denied him three times—was nowhere to be found at the cross, but the women were there. They even went with Joseph of Arimathea after he had begged Pontius Pilate for Jesus’ body.

Here they are at the tomb. Bravely revisiting the site where their leader’s body was laid in its final resting place. Returning alone with the spices and ointment they had prepared themselves. Risking being seen by Roman soldiers, and therefore being associated with a convicted and executed political criminal.

I’m sure they were warned, but nevertheless, they persisted.

But then… they hear the earth-shaking news from the dazzling strangers: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He isn’t here, but has been raised!”

The last to stay with Jesus, they were first to receive the message. The loyal ones who stuck with him until the end were there at the beginning of this living tradition we call “Christianity.” They were the first to proclaim the gospel (the good news) of the empty tomb. They ran to the eleven apostles (who were in hiding, by the way) to relay what they had seen, to share this astonishing experience for which there were barely words to describe…

And what happens? Nobody buys it.

That was typical back then. Were it a trial, their testimony wouldn’t even be admissible in court. Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts puts it this way: “But it all seemed to the men like so much female chatter, and they wouldn’t believe it.” [1]

Other versions say, “nonsense.” The Bibles in the pews said the apostles perceived the women’s stories “idle tales.”

That’s what happens, right? Someone from a marginal position comes in with a different story to tell, a story of hope, and it’s written off as nonsense. Even though they’ve opened doors for the rest of us, we generally see their stories in the rearview mirror of history, or not at all. Behind the scenes, doing the hard work, serving as the backbones of institutions and movements. Those who get little to none of the credit, yet who keep telling stories of a better world, who keep constructing alternative narratives of hope.

That’s a misunderstood word, hope. It’s the theme running throughout this Easter morning. It’s what the empty tomb inspires within us. It’s probably why people the world over rehearse that morning over and over again, and have done so for centuries, because we crave hope. Not hope as in a feeling or mood. Not hope as in wishing, “I hope this gets better.”

Hope as in an active choice that risks transformation.

Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners Magazine, said this week:

“Things that seem possible, reasonable, understandable, even logical in hindsight — things that we can deal with, things that don’t seem extraordinary to us — often seemed quite impossible, unreasonable, nonsensical, and illogical when we were looking ahead to them. The changes, the possibilities, the opportunities, the surprises that no one or very few would even have imagined, just become history after they’ve occurred…

Like the women at the tomb, I’m sure that people told Rosa Parks that the idea of equal civil rights was a nonsense. Now, I’m not thinking of the moment she declined to get up from her seat on that Montgomery Bus. People forget that she was a tireless organizer for the NAACP for years before that moment, that moment for which she had planned (it wasn’t spontaneous).

I’m willing to bet that her male colleagues didn’t believe Marie Curie when she claimed that radium could burn away diseased cells in our bodies, even though she spent years in the lab.

Or all the women of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union: when, in the late 1800s, that coalition of ordinary Americans pushed for everything from the 8-hour work day, to the 18th and 19th Amendments, to child labor laws, who accused them of telling “idle tales”? We stand on the shoulders of people like those who have told idle tales.

Jim Wallis again:

The news from the women at the tomb was the greatest hope that the world has ever known. And yet what did the disciples call it? ‘Nonsense.’ Hope unbelieved is always considered nonsense. But hope believed is history in the process of being changed.”

Who is telling “idle tales” of hope today?

In a world of perpetual war. In a world of suffering and oppression. In a world in which peace and justice are a constantly elusive dream—not just on the global stage, but down the street in our offices, schools, and homes.

The people (the women and men) telling idle tales today are those who—like Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others—dare to look for life in seemingly dead places, or better yet, people who work for life in places that have only known death. These are people who aren’t visionaries, necessarily, but who are still willing, in the grunt work of daily life, to keep telling stories of what is possible.

  • There’s the artist Kristen Visbal. Have you heard the news about her new statue, “Fearless Girl”? The statue stands on Wall Street right in front of the “Charging Bull.” The sculptor of Charging Bull and others on Wall Street are incensed about it. “The girl is standing there like this in front the bull, saying, ‘Now, what are you going to do?’ ” the bull’s sculptor, Arturo Di Modica, said… He maintains that Fearless Girl… at once distorts the intent of his statue from ‘a symbol of prosperity and for strength’ into a villain.” Challenging the bulwark of capitalism, what an idle tale!
  • There’s the friend who assures another, “Man, you can kick this habit this time.” An idle tale.
  • There’s every teacher who dares to tell a child, “You can amount to something.” An idle tale.
  • There are the Mothers of the Movement, the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown, women who took the stage of the Democratic National Convention last year, who push for a criminal justice system that is less racially biased and legislation that reduces gun violence. Idle tales if there ever were.

Friends, in the light of this Resurrection feast, in the power of the Spirit of the Living Christ, in the confidence of the God whose love is stronger than sin and death, may we be those ordinary people who tell idle tales.

Though a cynical world and purveyors of the status quo may not believe us, let us be about the “nonsense” of hope.

As Wendell Berry wrote, “every day do something that won’t compute… practice resurrection.” [2]

In the name of the Risen Christ, let us practice the nonsense of resurrection. Let us practice, with our words and with our lives, the idle tales of hope. 

[1] Clarence Jordan, “The Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts (1969), p.86.

[2] Wendell Berry, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” (1973).