An Idol of the Idle---Easter 2013

Easter at Tiny began with the Ode to Joy flash mob:

(Thanks to Marci Glass for the tip.) Then for the choral benediction the choir sang verse 3 of "Christ is Risen" (tune: Ode to Joy). That was a spur-of-the-moment decision before the service started---awesome.

And here's the sermon. You can listen to it here, but fair warning that my voice is raggedy. And the sweet baby we baptized had lots to say as well.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana Idylwood Presbyterian Church March 31, 2013 Luke 24:1-12 Easter Sunday

An Idol of the Idle

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women 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 Son of Man 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.


It was five days before Christmas, 1943. Franz Stigler, a pilot for the German air force, had an American B-17 bomber in his sights and was moving in for the kill.

Stigler was a gifted pilot. He only needed to shoot down one more plane to receive The Knight’s Cross, Germany’s highest award for valor. And he was motivated too—his own brother had been killed earlier in the war. It was Americans who’d been bombing his home country and killing his comrades. It was revenge that drove him, not glory. 

The B-17 had already been badly damaged by enemy fire. Stigler could see entire areas of the fusilage that had been blasted away. Engine two was gone, engine four badly damaged. Several of the crew were clearly injured, or worse. It would be an easy shot.

Stigler pulled up alongside the aircraft, close enough to see the co-pilot and the pilot, Charles Brown, a 21 year old from West Virginia. He saw terror, desperation on their faces. And… he didn’t shoot. He nodded. He gestured for them to land so that their wounds could be treated in Germany, or Sweden. When it became clear that Brown wasn’t going to land—in fact Brown couldn’t figure out what was going on, why wasn’t this German shooting them down? was it a trick?—Stigler escorted the plane as far as he could and then finally left it somewhere over the North Sea. He saluted the Americans, and turned back toward Germany. (source)

Something stopped Franz Stigler from shooting down the plane. But what?

*          *          *

It’s been said that people come to church on Sunday morning with one question on their minds: Is it true? And at no time is that question more intense than on an Easter morning. Of all the incomprehensible, improbable stories in this book—parables and proverbs and poetry—this is the story that confounds us the most.

The women come to perform the ritual of burial for their friend, only to find the tomb empty of a body and cluttered with angels.

They come carrying the spices for death, and they leave clutching a story of life, a story that their dearest friends will not believe. 

…Is it true?

I think about the woman I know who has been battling a crippling mental illness for years. It’s hard for her to get out of bed. She can’t care for her child. Basic tasks like cooking take every ounce of focused concentration she can muster. She needs to know if the resurrection is true.

I think about twenty sets of parents in Connecticut, and the fact that there’s someone missing at their Easter Egg Hunts and Passover Seders this week. They need to know if new life is possible.

I think about this crazy world of ours: a madman in North Korea, a warming climate, a bickering Congress, a billion hungry people. Is it too late for hope? Are we too far gone?

Is it true? I don’t know. I don’t know.

I don’t understand how a heart can start pumping again after being still for three days. I don’t understand how a body, broken through the torture of a cross, can stand again, walk around, greet his friends, breathe out peace.

When Jesus’ friends hear the women’s story, they dismiss it as an “idle tale.” It’s a funny word, idle. The Greek here means “showy... but useless.” Useless. Imagine that.

We have no use for this story, the men tell the women. They blow off the tale as idle, a trifle, a silly wishful imagining that doesn’t mean anything and doesn’t demand anything.

Is the women’s story useless? Is it idle? That’s the harder question for me than “Is it true.” That’s the more convicting question than “Is it true.”

If the story’s an idle tale, then we can go home, take off our Easter bonnets, sit down to our honey ham and forget everything we said and did and heard this morning.

But if the living Christ is loose in the world, then everything is different!

Resurrection changes everything!

Hope changes everything!

*          *          *

And hope shows up in unlikely places.

That’s what Charles Brown and his crew discovered as a German pilot escorted them to safety, sparing their lives at considerable risk to himself. Because if it ever got out what he'd done, he could be executed.

But Stigler, you see, had studied to be a priest at one point. When he saw that crippled airplane in the sky, it was rosary beads he fingered, not the trigger on his plane. And when he left the B-17 to make its limping flight back to England, he said, “You all are in God’s hands now.” 

Franz Stigler looked at that shell of a plane and instead of seeing a tomb, saw a little bit of life left in it. Call it whatever you want: honor, chivalry, a kind of holy restraint… hope goes by many aliases. But whatever you choose to call it, it’s costly. It’s demanding. And it is not an idle tale.

*          *          *

But oh, it is so hard to find that hope sometimes! Charles Brown and Franz Stigler both survived World War II; in fact they met, decades later, and became best friends and soul brothers. But that same war claimed so many millions of lives, cut short by hate and violence.

It was 45 years ago this week that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on the balcony of his Memphis hotel room. And so many others, peaceful and peacemaking, have lost their lives too. So what are we to do?

You may have seen the video recently, produced by the Anti-Defamation League for their 100th anniversary. It honors Dr. King, and Anne Frank, and many others, but more than that, it asks, “What if?” What if the outcome of their stories had been different?

It asks us to imagine:

It’s important to stand up against bigotry. But I see a much deeper message than that in this video. I see a call, not to give in to the idle tale. I see a call to live a resurrection story, a hopeful story. The work is not done. But if the Easter story means anything, it means that the outcome is ultimately assured. It means that the last word for Anne Frank and James Byrd and Mathew Shepard and Harvey Milk is not death, but life.

Because all of these people died, we must take up their fight for justice, freedom and peace.

And because Jesus was raised, we are able to do so… The resurrection is not an idle tale. It is our master story. It is our courage and our strength.

*          *          *

It all started a few weeks ago, when red curtains parted and a man walked out on the balcony wearing a simple white robe and cross, and gave a humble wave. No long speeches, no grand gestures. He asked the people to pray for him. The Pope asked the people for a blessing.

The next morning, he insisted on returning to the hotel where he had stayed before his election… because he wanted to pay the bill himself, as an example for other priests. He took a small apartment in the Vatican and opted not to use the fancy bullet-proof automobile for his first public appearance.

He has shared that during the conclave he sat next to Cardinal Cláudio Hummes of Brazil, whom he called “a great friend.” After the voting, Cardinal Hummes “hugged me, he kissed me and he said, ‘Don’t forget the poor!’ And that word entered here,” the pope said, pointing to his heart.

This week, he broke with tradition by celebrating Maundy Thursday services, not in the ornately decorated St. John Lateran’s Basilica with all its pomp and finery, but at a youth prison. Normally the Pope washes the feet of other priests, but on Thursday he washed the feet of inmates at the youth prison: the forgotten, the forsaken, the condemned. Among them were two young women. It is the first time the pope has ever washed the feet of women.

“This is a symbol, it is a sign,” he told them. “Washing your feet means I am at your service.”

We would expect nothing less from a man who worked as a priest and a bishop among the poor of Argentina, a man who has spent his ministry speaking up for the “least of these,” and who named himself after Francis of Assisi, a man beloved by people of all faiths the world over, a man known for his deep humility and faith, a man who wrote, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”

Shane Claiborne has written that Christianity spreads not through force, but through fascination. It’s fair to say that many many people have been fascinated by this pope.

Here is the head of the Catholic Church and its one billion followers, with access to incredible power and influence and yes, wealth, reaching out to the least of these, embracing a life of humility as much as he is able.

It’s almost as if he takes the teachings of Jesus seriously. It’s almost as if the resurrection of Jesus is not just an idle tale. It’s almost as if the resurrection of Jesus is a story worth staking one’s entire life on.

Imagine that.

Imagine that.