Texts: Genesis 1:1—2:4a ; Exodus 14:10–31; 15:20–21 ; Jonah 1:1—2:1 ; Daniel 3:1–29 ; John 20:1–18
You people of God, washed in storied waters, grace and peace be with you. Amen.
Watching the Boy Scouts light the new fire outside our sanctuary draws me back to the church youth group I grew up with in Des Moines. We all pretty much knew each other from junior high on. We met in confirmation classes and kept on in the youth program. We went on summer choir tours singing in Lutheran congregations around the country and on canoe trips in the boundary waters of northern Minnesota. Seeing the scouts and the fire pit reminds me of those nights camping up north.
We would spend our days canoeing on the lakes – not too strenuously, except for a serious portage from time to time. We played in the rapids and took plenty of swimming breaks. Someone always thought it would be funny to tip the canoe, until they discovered how hard and heavy waterlogged pads are on your shoulders during a long hike.
The best part came at night though. Wet shoes and socks set next to a hot fire to dry, after dinner, with the adults snoring somewhere near – but not too nearby. Instant hot chocolate with mini-marshmallows, and smores, and… ghost stories.
The ghost stories we told were pretty hokey. I don’t really think anyone was ever scared by them, but it was fun to see who could take the basic framework of a story we’d all heard before and embellish it in ways that could make us laugh, or maybe even look over our shoulders. Ghost stories told around a camp fire, good fun to be sure – but not true. Amusing diversions from reality.
That’s pretty much what people had to say about the early Christians, and their stories about the risen Jesus. To people who hadn’t known the Lord, who hadn’t experienced God’s power in his words and acts, the notion that a man crucified and buried could rise from the dead sounded like just another ghost story. Details like the boulder that was rolled away, the empty tomb, the linen wrappings… these were just the sorts of embellishments you’d expect from any good storyteller. The fact that different communities of Christians told the story in slightly different ways only proved their point. This miraculous resurrection was a myth, a ghost story… what we today would call an urban legend.
“Risen? Try stolen… that’s what happened to his body. His followers stole the body to make his predictions look true, and it’s been buried in an unmarked grave or, worse, fed to the scavengers.” That’s what we know the detractors said. It’s recorded in other writings from the first centuries after Jesus’ death. “There’s no proof,” people said – people are still saying. “It’s all one long ghost story.”
Except that it’s not. It’s not a ghost story, and neither are any of the other stories we’ve heard tonight. The creation, the deliverance at the Red Sea, Jonah and the whale, the young men at the fiery furnace, the risen Lord. These are not ghost stories. They are true – people just aren’t looking for evidence in the right places.
You want proof of the creation? No need to get bogged down in arguments over creationism versus evolution – it isn’t that kind of story. It’s not history, it’s reality. God made the world, including you and me, and God looked at us and said “it is good.” Parents and lovers and sisters and brothers – anyone who has ever looked at you with the eyes of love knows that a story that says you were created as part of God’s beloved world is a true story.
Deliverance at the sea? Absolutely true! Was the sea red or full of reeds? Were the Israelites ever historically enslaved by the Egyptians? Who cares? Not the point! It isn’t history – it’s reality. God delivers us from the hand of the oppressor, God liberates enslaved people. Ask anyone who remembers segregated drinking fountains, or jobs that only men could fill – anyone who has ever been barred from a benefit or an experience or a job that others took for granted and lived to see that wall fall within their lifetime. Ask the people in this room for any one of a thousand stories of the ways that God is parting seas and moving mountains and bursting chains in order to set us free. True story!
Jonah and the big fish? Without a doubt – true. Ask yourself – have you ever let someone down and been offered a second chance? Have you ever experienced the kind of forgiveness that pulls you up out of the chaotic waters of a messed up life and puts you back on solid ground? God uses us to speak words of law and gospel to one another – words of accountability and promises of hope. We cannot run away from God’s work in our lives or in the world. True story!
The fiery furnace. The time of trial. The showdown with authority. Speaking the truth to power. Testimony. This is not a ghost story. Ask Edward R. Murrow as he told the truth to a nation under the sway of McCarthyism or Sojourner Truth as she asked the women gathered in Akron, Ohio “ain’t I a woman?” Ask anyone who has ever stood up to a bully on the playground or stood by a friend when it was the unpopular thing to do. Ask anyone who has found the strength to stand tall when the fires of power and privilege wanted to reduce them to ash – strength that comes like an angel standing with you in white hot places. This is no ghost story. It is reality.
And what about this man, who preached non-violence and confronted the powers and principalities of his time. Who spoke truth to power and was given a criminal’s death. Who looked at the people who came to him for healing with the eyes of God’s love and gave healing, not only to bodies but to burdened hearts and broken spirits? I hear they say he was put in a tomb, but on the third day he rose again. That he is risen, alive in the world. Ghost story, or something else?
I say, look no further than the person sitting next to you for the proof. We all sit here as God’s sinners. People who have fallen and gotten back up. We live in battered homes and bullet-ridden neighborhoods. We work in bureaucratic systems and bear loads too heavy for anyone to carry alone.
But together we are a body, a family, a neighborhood, a church. Together we are reminded of the goodness of our creation. We are liberated from the slaveries that would hold us down. Together we are forgiven and set back on the path. We stand before the powers of our time to say that the world is not the way it was intended to be, and to call for its renewal. Together we see life returning to people and places left for dead.
These stories are not history, they are what we call “salvation history.” That is to say, these stories are the reality of God’s work in the world. Our stories are found in these stories, and they live in us as well. We are a part of God’s salvation history. We are being raised up from the tomb. We are rising and cannot be held down or held back. Alleluia! Alleluia!