Lunatics for Jesus

Luke 24:1-12
© Stacey Steck

Easter is late this year. Ever wonder why Easter is what the Roman Catholics call a moveable feast, a holiday without a fixed date? Well, the date of Easter is calculated based on the appearance of the first full moon following the vernal equinox, which is March 21. Since the moon came full just this Friday on April 19, and since April 19 is the first full moon after March 21, we celebrate Easter this year on April 21, the first Sunday that follows. If you think that sounds complicated, it is, and this year is actually even more complicated than usual, but you’ll have to consult the Farmer’s Almanac to find out why. The earliest day in any year that we could possibly have Easter is therefore March 22, and the latest is April 25, and incidentally, only three times in the last 150 years has Easter fallen on even its second earliest possible date of March 23, the most recent coming just a few years ago. But in case you were wondering about Easter falling on its earliest day, the last time was the year 1818, and the next time will be in the year 2285. And finally, the date on which Easter is most likely to fall is March 31. But all that is an idle tale.

Some historians suggest that the reason this method of calculating the date of Easter was chosen had to do with the pilgrimages that people would take to the Holy Land near the time of both the Passover but also that vernal equinox, one of the days of the year when the amount of daytime and nighttime was equal. A long journey through a hot desert would be made easier by traveling at night, but that was difficult without our modern convenience of electricity, and so the next best alternative was sought, and that was the light of the moon. And so to accommodate the arrival of pilgrims, Easter was set as a moveable feast when the moon could offer its light, but also so that the pilgrims could take advantage of some of the cooler hours of the growing daylight. But that too is an idle tale.

The burning of Judas is an Easter-time ritual in many Orthodox Christian and Roman Catholic communities, where an effigy of Judas Iscariot is burned. Though not an official part of the Easter liturgical cycle, the custom is typically a part of the reenactment of the story of the Passion that is practiced by the faithful during Easter. Customs vary, but the effigy of Judas is typically hanged (reenacting Matthew 27:5) on Good Friday, then burned on the night of Easter Sunday. And then there’s the Easter Bunny, and the decorated eggs, and the plastic grass, and the new clothes for Easter, and the lilies, and all the rest. But all those are idle tales.

Maybe by now you get where I am going. What do all of these idle tales have to do with the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead? With the empty tomb? With two men in dazzling clothes asking “Why are you looking for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” With remembering how Jesus had told them exactly what would happen? Well, from even that first day, the story of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and the empty tomb, the angels, and all the rest, has been considered “an idle tale.” Remember? Mary and the other women return from discovering the great news of the empty tomb, and all that the rest of the disciples can do is think they were off their rockers. “But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” To call it simply an idle tale was “actually a fairly generous translation of the Greek work leros. That word, you see, is the root of our word ‘delirious.’ So in short, they thought what the women said was crazy, nuts, utter nonsense.” Perhaps it is telling that after Peter decided to see for himself the so-called empty tomb, and discovered that it was in fact as the women had said, that he went straight home, “amazed at what had happened,” but apparently not willing to open himself up to the same charge of delirium by broadcasting the same news as the women. Can you just imagine how those poor women felt, they who were the first bringers of the world’s greatest news, only to be told they were out of their minds?

The world is full of idle tales of two sorts. The first kind of tales are idle in the same sense as our story this morning, because they are considered “unbelievable,” or too hard to believe. They are not taken seriously because we think they are fashioned by seemingly fanatical and delirious people. UFOs, Bigfoot, La Chupacabra, the Loch Ness Monster, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. These stories are so far out, or far enough out that they are easily dismissed, even if they for a time capture the popular imagination. We don’t have a problem with idle tales presented as merely idle tales. Hollywood would cease to exist if we did. It is when we try to pass off as truth what seems too difficult to be true that charges of delirium are pressed.

The second kind of idle tale is the one that is idle because it seems superfluous, not necessary to live the kind of life to which one aspires. It can be easily dismissed so as to get on with the weightier matters of the day, or easily embraced to avoid the weightier matters of the day. The Kardashians come to mind. The Internet is full of such delirium and foolishness. At best, this second kind is a benign distraction, a little light entertainment to take the edge off a hard day. At worst it is an addiction, a means of checking out completely and submerging ourselves in a fantasy world in which we think we can avoid pain and heartache. But the tales are idle no matter which way we take them.

I think the resurrection is, today, an idle tale of both types. On the one hand, perhaps even more so than on that first Easter morning, we are disinclined to believe something so supranatural could have happened. We have two thousand years more knowledge of the way the world works, of the laws of nature, and the ways of science, how incredibly difficult is even the resuscitation of a dead body, much less a resurrection. In that same period, we have dissected and demythologized the Biblical texts, and found enough parallels to the story of Christ in other religions and myths to make some of us willing to believe that what we used to call miraculous is just borrowing from other competing motifs, or trying to one-up other worldviews. If the story of the empty tomb seemed fanciful to the ears of those who lived two thousand years ago, who, some would say, were far more inclined to believe in that kind of divine intervention in the first place, how much more ridiculous must it sound today?

And on the other hand we must ask how much more superfluous could the idea of resurrection be today, especially among those who have no idea what it is like to suffer, as the peasants disciples and followers of Jesus did? There seems to me to be more than a casual correlation between the depths of one’s suffering and the fervor of one’s faith. It is something like the old saying that there are no atheists in foxholes. And so, from our position of affluence, what need do we have for an omnipotent God when, for the most part, we control our own destinies? Who cares about God’s power when we have wealth and weapons? We don’t need anyone to save us, from either sin or suffering. The answer to any question we might have can be found on Wikipedia. If we don’t like the answer we receive there, we can find another with the help of Google. And if that fails, there is no end of telemarketers or pharmaceutical companies who can sell us something to ease our anxiety about not having all the answers.

And it is not just skeptics and atheists who question or dismiss the risen Christ as an idle tale. Faithful people too wrestle with the challenges of believing a miracle that seems a little hard to believe, and of believing it when there seems little benefit to believe it. Or at least those faithful people wrestle with living as though it is more than an idle tale of either sort. They accept the resurrection because they are supposed to accept it, because they honor the creeds in which it is included, because they had to say they believed it to make it out of Confirmation Class. But either some element of doubt, or the lack of a whole-hearted embrace of the resurrection of Jesus Christ linger in churches of every sort, even ours to be sure, and leave the story to be greeted anew as an idle tale by the next generation.

I began by describing some idle tales that fall into that second, superfluous category, tales about how and why the date of Easter is calculated, and about customs attached to this day we call Easter. We could just as easily celebrate Easter on every second Sunday in April, if it suited us, rather than on the first Sunday following the first full moon following the vernal equinox. We could dismiss pilgrimages as irrelevant since we know God does not reside in a specific place, but everywhere and in our hearts. We could leave behind all our rituals and customs of the season and focus more exclusively on this unbelievable resurrection. And we can do that, and probably should, because all of them are idle tales that distract us from what is really important: an encounter with the risen Christ who changes the rules of the game, who lives and reigns at the right hand of God the Father, who transforms our lives if we will but let him. The resurrection cannot be an idle tale in our hearts. It cannot be an idle tale in our lives. It cannot be an idle tale in our world. We must put anything that leads us to dismiss the empty tomb as an idle tale behind us in the same way that Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan!” when that disciple denied that this resurrection would happen. Put those Easter bunnies back in the closet!

But. But. Perhaps there is good reason that Easter is associated with the full moon after all. Perhaps it’s so that we might catch a little lunacy, act a little abnormally, behave like the resurrection really matters while the rest of the world denies it. The word “lunatic” is usually used to refer to people who are considered mentally ill, dangerous, foolish, or unpredictable, people whose lives themselves are an idle tale. The word derives, of course, from lunaticus meaning “of the moon” or “moonstruck,” because it was thought that the full moon made people act in strange ways because it disrupted normal sleep patterns. Philosophers such as Aristotle and Pliny the Elder argued that the full moon caused a partial sleep deprivation that was sufficient to induce mania in susceptible bipolar patients, and seizures in patients with seizure disorders. Now, that’s an idle tale, but wouldn’t it be something if we who proclaim the resurrection were as struck by it as those who were once called lunatics were supposedly moonstruck. What might the world look like if we were delirious lunatics for Jesus, believing, and acting out our belief, that God changed the world once and for all, defeating death when our Lord was raised?

And what might our world look like if we were deliriously lunatic enough to put our faith into action like a pilgrimage for which we needed God’s guiding light? To make a commitment and honor it in front of all the people we pass by along the way, no matter whether it be labeled an idle tale? What if we lived our lives as a pilgrimage toward God’s vision for the world, letting nothing stand in our way of that goal, even if caring for the castoffs of society, or the air we breathe is considered superfluous? What if the resurrection was more a lifestyle than a doctrine? How delirious would you be willing to look? How many times have you heard the Easter Sunday story? And when’s the last time it made a difference in your life? Will we be like the women who went and eagerly told the disciples? Or like Peter, who went straight home and kept the good news to himself?

The good news of the Gospel is that God doesn’t call us to be delirious lunatics without having been one first. You see, God is the one who is delirious. God is the great lunatic. God is the one who did in Jesus Christ the unbelievable for the very people who thought it superfluous. God’s power isn’t limited by how unbelievable we may find it. God’s grace isn’t limited by how superfluous we may think it is. And God’s love isn’t limited by how idle a tale it may seem to us in our doubting moments, or the world in all its skepticism. God raised Jesus from the grave and made death the idle tale, once and for all. Alleluia, Alleluia. Amen.

Don't Leave it to the Stones

Luke 19:28-40
© Stacey Steck

When you hear this great story of Palm Sunday, you get the impression that it was a pretty loud affair, starting with some murmuring, then some calls for more cloaks to be laid down on the road, then maybe some whistling, then all of a sudden, “the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,” using some of the words of Psalm 118, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord,” and using some of the words spoken to the shepherds in the fields at the time of Jesus’ birth, “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven.” Interesting how the words and ideas of kingship run from the beginning to the end of Jesus’ life.

We have no way of knowing how many were there that day, but we do know what was on their minds, and why that would make the enemies of Jesus more than a little nervous; crowds always make governments nervous. We will conveniently forget that these same wildly cheering disciples will be nowhere to be found a few days later when Jesus is executed, but for the moment, they are doing what good disciples should be doing, and that is praising God. But it is almost as if in anticipation of that coming abandonment that Jesus replies to the Pharisees, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” It may have been hard for anyone in the crowd that day to imagine silent disciples, but there they were just a few days later.

I’ve always been intrigued by Jesus’ reference to the stones, especially never having heard a stone actually speak. I had a pet rock once, but I could never get it to say anything. I spent many hours trying to teach it something, but it just sat there, not even blinking. But here is what I might suspect is true about the speaking ability of stones: that they don’t really get out very much, and therefore are not good conversationalists. Their social skills are really not that developed. They tend toward grunts and mumbling, and are reticent about public speaking. They are not very good spokespeople for the Almighty God. To be sure, their praise is just as beautiful in God’s ears as our praise, but I’m not sure I’d rather listen to a stone than a soprano. I’m not trying to start any kind of inter-creation incident, but rocks are really dumb. In more ways than one…

But still, they are part of God’s creation and deserve some respect, so I will give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they are probably even more faithful than we are. After all, Jesus said that in our silence, the rocks would cry out. Maybe God heard the rocks on Good Friday, when few of us were there, and none of those who were spoke up for fear that they might share the same fate as Jesus. Thanks be to God for the stones who showed no fear and who cried out for mercy for Jesus as he hung there suffering. May their voices have been a comfort to his ears. All this begs the question: are we even in the same league of faithfulness as the stones?

Maybe you’ve never thought about it like this, but God doesn’t need your praise. For that matter, God probably doesn’t need anything, but, like the person who already has everything, it’s the thought of the gift that counts. And so, we believe that God enjoys being offered a little praise, along with evidence of righteousness, justice, and compassion. But if we human beings never offered our praise, it is not that there would be no praise; it is simply that it would sound a lot different. Remember, all creation sings. All creation recognizes God. God will always have some part of creation that will shout out in glory and thanksgiving, although I think God prefers us to be a part of it, we who have been called into a special relationship. The trees will moan in the wind, the water will gurgle over the rocks, the animals will howl and the birds cluck and coo, and even the rocks will cry out in their own way; nothing can keep creation from giving praise to its creator. But we too are part of creation and I believe that God longs to hear our praise, even if it is not necessary.

The context of today’s story speaks to our need to praise, but certainly that is not the only way we have been given to cry out. We cry out in joy, in anger, in frustration, in terror, in depression, in addiction. We cry out in concern and compassion, in solidarity and sympathy. We cry out alone and together, solo and in harmony of soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass. We cry out in song and poetry. We cry out in the middle of the night, and at the rising of the sun, whenever our voices are called forth. We have been given lovely voices to speak the word of love come down from the peace of heaven to share that peace on earth.

The silence of the disciples on the day of Jesus’ death was lamentably not the last time they held their tongues. To be sure, following Easter, you couldn’t shut them up; they’d tell anyone and everyone about Jesus and the power of the God who raised him from the dead. But since then, and at the cost of too many lives, the voices of Jesus’ disciples have fallen silent too often, and the stones have been left to pick up our slack. Mostly, our silence has simply cost others the opportunity to share in the blessings we receive from relationship with Jesus Christ, but too often it has served our own interests at the expense of others. Despite some noticeable examples to the contrary, throughout the centuries, the church and its members have been complicit in the enslavement, suffering, and death of innumerable of God’s creatures, both human and non-human. We have stood by and watched silently as millions of Jews were lead to the gas chambers, as Hutus and Tutsis slaughtered one another, as Orthodox and Catholic butchered one another and Muslims in the former Yugoslavia, as blacks were enslaved and lynched, and apartheid was the oppressive law of the land in South Africa. We have stood by silently and allowed generations to live in poverty, both in our own back yards and across the world. We have stood by silently as the tops of whole mountaintops are sheared off and dumped into West Virginia creek beds, once the coal has been extracted from them. Those are just some of the more recent examples, and I’m sure you have your own list of atrocities that never should have happened. Don’t get me wrong, some Christians, some churches, have been there, advocating, and working, and risking their lives, but in all those cases I mentioned, where was the multitude calling for “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven?” How could any of those events have happened for longer than even one day, when there were so many of us who could have raised our voices and put an end to it? But instead, we left it to the stones to cry out against injustice, and unfortunately, although God may have ears to hear the shouts of the stones, the powers and principalities of this world do not, and stones are much more easily ignored than loud and persistent human beings.

The multitude in Jerusalem that day scared the Pharisees, and ultimately the Romans, into action, even if the praises were simply overheard by them. The shouts of acclamation that demonstrated a greater loyalty to Jesus than either the religion or the politics of the day were a very real threat. They weren’t even directly taking on the important issues of the day, and still they caused enough consternation to lead to Jesus’ death. How much more powerful then must be the witness of those whose loyalty leads them to shout out not only in praise of the glory of God but also against the injustice that tarnishes that glory? What power has been given to our voices, if only we would use them! Will we use them, or will we leave it to the stones? Friends, as we go forth from the coming Easter, may the power of the resurrected Christ resurrect our voices, so we don’t need to leave either the praise of God nor the call for justice to the stones. Amen.

Something Is Missing

John 12:1-8
© Stacey Steck

When I was a younger man, with a little cash in my pocket and some eardrums left to spare, I bought a pretty high-powered stereo system for my 1981 Subaru DL hatchback. If you remember those cars, they were quite small, and it didn’t take much wattage at all to make any music sound pretty good in there. But that wasn’t enough for me. No, I needed a 40 watt Blaupunkt amplifier with matching equalizer, two honking big woofers in the back, and two tweeters in the doors, so I could crank it up loud enough to feel the beat of the bass in my chest, and, if the circumstances were just right, to make a little blood come oozing out of my ears. Well, maybe that is exaggerating just a little, but it was a system that could have easily damaged my ears for life, but that didn’t matter at all. What mattered was the music. Now it’s true that a 40-watt amplifier really brings out the best in a recording. I mean you can hear stuff in the background that makes a good song great, and even a bad song sound almost good, yes, it really brings out the best in the music, but I can’t say it really brought out the best in me. I was either showing it off, listening to it while riding around burning up more than my fair share of fossil fuels, or endlessly searching for new cassettes I could play in it. Yes, it was that long ago, the era of cassette tapes, when I was young and irresponsible, relatively speaking, at least. It was not a time I devoted much attention to God. And I wouldn’t have known if God was paying any attention to me anyway. I had my music turned up so loud, the divine voice didn’t stand a chance. Sometimes you have to turn off the music to hear yourself think, or to hear God speaking.

I suppose I’ve gone from one extreme to the other. In our home these days, and in the car, there is a lot less music playing, and a lot less volume when there is. But I certainly don’t feel the poorer for it, and my ears have held up very well, thank you, at least when Flora’s not speaking to me. The truth is I have survived perfectly well, and even thrived, without maintaining an endless, high volume soundtrack in my ears. Perhaps I have missed out on some real soul-stirring music in the last few decades, but I think it was worth the trade-off. The only real music worth listening to, good old-fashioned Rock and Roll, is dead anyway, right? I mean, what are the odds of a Blue Oyster Cult reunion? Am I dating myself?

Don’t get me wrong, however. The music I do listen to adds a lot to my life. It brings peace, and joy, and inspiration. I love me some Johnny Cash. And the work of Arvo Pärt, the brilliant Estonian Orthodox composer, and david m. bailey, the Presbyterian folk singer. I love the soundtrack from the Lord of the Rings. As you know, I’ve picked up the violin again too. Yes, music does still mean a lot to me, not only recorded music, but maybe even more importantly church music, the music we sing and play each week, the music I remember from my childhood in the church’s children’s choir and bell choir, those hymns and songs and spiritual songs. More than rock and roll, this is the soundtrack of my life that really matters.

With that as prelude then, let me press the Lenten pause button and ask you to imagine, for just a moment, imagine your life without any music at all, not just missing from church, but missing from life. Not that you are deaf. There is sound. There is just no music. It is a pretty barren, hardly celebratory life. Dancing would be difficult, though not impossible. Birthday parties would look (and sound) a lot different. How you experience movies and television shows would be dramatically altered. You would have to find a different frame of reference for the highs and lows of your life. In short, your life without music would be almost completely different than it is today, and likely the poorer for it. Maybe we’d find a way to adapt, to celebrate in new ways, to communicate what music communicates through different media. Or maybe we’d just be a sullen, drab, dreary, workaholic people, grinding it out, day by day. You could say the same about food without flavor, or landscapes without color (with all due respect to the great Ansel Adams), or stories without happy endings. There would be something missing from our lives, something if not absolutely essential, then at least something we wouldn’t want to live without, if there were any way around it.

And this is why Mary poured a years’ worth of wages on Jesus’ feet. This is what Mary recognized in Jesus, that although she might be alive, without him there was no life worth living. She knew it first hand, and so did her whole family. It wasn’t only that Lazarus had been raised from the dead. It was that he had been raised to new life. In this bold thing Mary has done, we see that she has recognized that Jesus is who he says he is. Back when he raised Lazarus from the dead, he told her sister Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die,” and asked her, “Do you believe this?” And Martha says yes, even though when it came time for Jesus to try to raise her brother, she hedged her bets when she reminded Jesus that Lazarus has been dead for four days and that the stench of the tomb would be overwhelming. So much for Martha.

But in this morning’s story, Mary gets it; Mary says with her action, “Yes, I believe.” As a result of her belief, she does several amazing things which show that she does get it. The power of the witness of Mary’s discipleship in this story is that she knows how to respond to Jesus without being told, unlike the disciples who will need to be told in upcoming chapters of John to “love one another.” She fulfills Jesus’ commandment to love by washing his feet with perfume before he teaches it to the disciples by washing theirs with water; she embraces Jesus’ departure at his “hour” when she anoints his body in preparation for burial while he is yet alive before he has taught his followers about the true meaning of his departure. She gives boldly of herself in love to Jesus at this hour, just as Jesus will give boldly of himself in love at his hour. In those upcoming chapters in John we call Jesus’ farewell discourse, he will make explicit what this story shows: that discipleship is defined by acts of love and one’s response to Jesus. Discipleship is defined by acts of love and one’s response to Jesus. Let it not be overlooked that the Fourth Evangelist names a woman as the first to embody the love that is commanded of all disciples. Ladies, give yourselves a hand.

What Mary did when she anointed Jesus’ feet with an extravagant and abundant amount of perfume was recognize that though we spend most of our lives searching for intimacy with God, we rarely experience it as we might wish, and we even more rarely celebrate it as we should. Was she grateful that Jesus had brought her brother back from the dead? Sure. But was she more grateful that Jesus brought with him abundant and eternal life for all and that he had shared it with her? No doubt. I’m reminded of those great Mastercard commercials, you know the kind, like with the father and son who go to the baseball park, and the program costs so many dollars, and the hotdogs cost so many dollars but that there are things money can’t buy? And in our gospel story this morning, it might go something like this: One roast mutton dinner with friends: 18 sheckels. One pound of nard for anointing the feet of the Messiah: Three thousand denarii. One traitorous friend: 30 pieces of silver. Celebrating that God is in your midst? Priceless. You see, Mary knew what my Grandma Lystad knew after her second husband died, when she said to Flora and me: “Use all your nice stuff, the china, the linens, the things you have set aside for special occasions, use them all the time, because life is short and the time for celebrating may be gone before you know it.”

The role of Lent, I think, is to help us recognize what’s really important. When we give something up, as the practice of fasting suggests we do, our routine gets changed, at least for these forty days. If we give up coffee or alcohol, our taste buds seek another, hopefully healthier, sensation. If we give up Facebook, we seek out our social connection in some other, hopefully more personal, way. If we give up a time consuming habit, we seek to fill those hours in some other, hopefully more productive, way. We recognize that something is missing, and we make that correction. Ideally, Lent is when we recognize how much God is missing in our lives, and we make that correction, and turn to celebrating the God who has given us life. Mary knew what to do when she recognized what had been missing in her life. In what remains of this year’s Lent, may we each recognize through the fasting of our minds or bodies what each of our spirits need, and turn toward it, as Mary has shown us. Amen.