Acts 10:34-43; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; Luke 24:1-12
Pr. Scott Kramer
I brought with me today a potted tomato plant. Tomorrow is Earth Day—a happy coincidence with our celebration of Easter today. We see the annual spring miracle of resurrection all around us, and Earth Day reminds us in an increasingly urgent way that our Christian vocation includes stewardship of our home, the Earth.
This plant is organic and locally grown. It’s a Sungold cherry tomato, perfectly suited to our cool Pacific Northwest summers. It occupies a pot that contains simple potting soil. This potting soil will nourish the plant for awhile but eventually, of course, the nutrients will run out.
I also have with me this morning a bag of steer manure—which is, put simply, cow poop! If I add this to the soil on a regular basis the plant will have a steady supply of nutrients.
But, I didn’t bring steer manure this morning merely as a lesson in horticulture or a salute to Earth Day.
In today’s resurrection story, having been to the empty tomb, three women discover that Jesus is not there. Following a strange encounter with “two men in dazzling clothes,” they report their experience to Jesus’ male disciples. Luke records their response in v.11: 11But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.
Other words for “idle tale” might be “nonsense” or “silly talk.” It might even have the ring of deception or untruth. In contemporary language, some might translate it, “BS”—steer manure!
Those of us who have been in the church and heard this story countless times have trained ourselves to believe that belief is good, doubt is bad. Jesus’ disciples do not believe the story they are told; that must be “bad!”
But imagine for a moment a different Easter story that goes like this: 1On the first day of the week, at early dawn, [the women] came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3but when they went in, they did not find the body. And they said, “Oh, yeah, just like he said—we expected that!”
Well, that would be a much shorter Easter story! Much cleaner–No doubts. No messiness. But, it would also be a whole lot less human, as if the women and Jesus’ other disciples were space aliens from some planet where such things happen all the time.
No, the Easter story we are given is longer and messier. Luke uses words like “terrified,” “amazed,” “perplexed” to describe the experience of these very human characters. I don’t know about you, but that seems a lot closer to my own experience, where very little is “cut and dried.”
In fact, if you think about it, there is room in the Easter story for regular human beings like us! Room for our belief. Room for our doubts. The Easter story is not simply one person off by himself or herself telling us that “this is the way it is.” There’s this back-and-forth conversation among God’s people, sharing stories, sharing experiences–arguing!–and in the midst of their fear and confusion about “facts” that don’t line up, trying to grapple with mystery and miracle.
Doubt is not the problem in the Easter story. Doubt is not usually the problem in the life of faith. There’s room in the story for people to say, “Well, that’s all just BS.” That sermon is BS. That Christian teaching is BS.
Notice that in today’s reading a shift is already happening in the main characters. Peter sees for himself that Jesus is not in the tomb, and he goes home…amazed! That doesn’t wrap the story up in a neat bow, but it does affirm the possibility of something radically new and transforming taking hold of a person’s life. God never gives up on the doubter!
The problem in the Easter story is not doubt. The problem in the life of faith is not doubt. No, the life of faith is a conversation that includes and even needs doubt, like a hungry tomato plant needs compost or manure. The obstacle to this resurrection story is certainty, which leaves no room for growth. No room for the miracles of God.
The Notre Dame fire captured the attention of the world this past week, but like any church, Notre Dame is not a living thing; it’s just a building, a “cultural icon.” And, as the news reports, it is a building that will be quickly rebuilt by billionaires falling all over each other to make a name for themselves!
My attention has been caught by a different faith-related story out of France. Last Sunday, PBS began a six-part series of the classic story that continues tonight, Les Misérables. The story’s main character is Jean Valjean, just released after 19 years of hell in a French prison—for stealing a loaf of bread. In prison, Valjean had experienced no love and no human kindness. Understandably, he leaves prison cynical, angry, and self-centered, quickly returning to his thieving ways.
Rejected by everyone he meets, Valjean one day encounters a priest who shows him great kindness, including offering him a meal and a place to sleep. Seeing his bitter soul, the priest asks, “Don’t you believe that love can transform a person?” And Valjean replies, “No!” Or, as the disciples put it in the resurrection story, “BS!” The old prisoner sounds certain, but by the end of the episode his “armor” is beginning to crack, and I suspect that tonight in the second episode we’ll see a different Valjean emerge, someone touched deeply by the power of love.
No, doubt is not necessarily an obstacle in the life of faith. If faith is like a plant, doubt can even be the manure that nourishes and renews the life of faith. What some might call “BS” might be just what faith needs to grow! It is certainty that is usually a greater obstacle to faith. Uncompromising belief or unbelief leaves little room for miracles, for mystery, for the possibility of being transformed by the power of love.
According to our scriptures, faith, by definition, is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen. It is in this messy faith, full of uncertainty, and fear, and amazement, that the seed of unconditional love can begin to take root and even flourish.
In Luke’s account of the Easter story, there’s one little word that appears five times: “but”. Now, “but,” when used in a sentence, indicates that there’s something more to be said. It might even indicate something apparently the opposite of what was just said.
This tiny three-letter word is very familiar to us. It can, as in the Bible, remind us that the limits we impose on our lives are not the final word. There may be obstacles and challenges, BUT the God who raised Jesus from the dead is not defeated by human limitations.
Often, however, “but” is used as a reason not to tap into that resurrection power but to rely on our own wants, and needs, and fears. “But” is often a reason to allow “practical” concerns to dictate our choices: “That’s a great idea, BUT we don’t have enough money. BUT we don’t have enough people.”
Which, if you think about it, might make the critics justified in their skepticism of Christian faith! If we who aspire to be followers of Jesus organize our lives merely according to practical concerns, then maybe the critics are right to call our religion—our faith—a bunch of BS!
The only thing the world knows about the transforming love of God in Christ is what they see: What they see in ordinary, personal, one-on-one human kindness, yes.
But even more, in what we risk publicly, for Christian faith is not about a “private” religion. As the stories of our faith attest over and over, it is first and foremost a public expression of our relationship to God. The transforming power of God’s love, for example, was on display to the world over the past four months through our partnership with Tent City 3. It will be again next month through ARISE.
On this Earth Day eve, I am left wondering what other public testimony of God’s amazing grace and resurrection power await our response. For example, from the time I set eyes on this church building sixteen years ago I have held a vision of solar panels on the roof. In a day when it’s clear that God’s beloved Earth, and future generations with it, are in trouble by human activity, what would it mean to show publicly through our electric power faith in God’s power to raise up hope instead of despair, health and healing instead of sickness, new life instead of death.
Is our faith in the living Christ just a bunch of BS? Or, do we dare to claim God’s resurrection power for ourselves and for the world? Do we dare not to be constrained by our fears and assumptions and desire for comfort?
Like Peter and the other disciples, do we dare to allow even our doubts to be unsettled? Might our doubts, in fact, become buried in the soil of faith–like steer manure!–feeding something new and full of life that we neither expected nor maybe even imagined?
Our doubts, our “buts” are welcomed by the God “who loves us, no matter what.” And yet, there is a bottom line: The Easter story of this amazing love proclaims to us and to the world that the “BUT” stops here: Not our doubts and fears BUT God’s love and transforming power are the final word!
Which is to say: Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. No ifs, ands…or buts…about it! Alleluia!