Grief, Doubt, Hope, Choice ~ an Easter Sermon

Rev. Susie Webster-Toleno

Westminster West, Vermont

April 16, 2017 (Easter morning)

Luke 24: 1-12


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.


Have you ever been called a heretic? I have. More than once, actually. I mean, it’s not as though it comes up often, but it has happened a few times over the years.

Interestingly, the times I’ve been called a heretic, it hasn’t been because of what I believe about God or Jesus or even anything esoteric like the Trinity, but rather the fact that I believe it’s A-okay for women to be ministers. So, yeah, my obvious deviation from an archaic human rule has been what has raised the ire of a few fellow Christians along the way. They claimed to be not trying to insult me, you’ll be glad to know, but to protect you. They were just so concerned, because I am endangering your souls by leading you all to hell, you see. (So … my apologies for your eternal perdition?) No, seriously, it’s not a point I’ve ever bothered to argue with one of them. I mean, really, if they believe that, there’s not a lot I can do to convince them otherwise.

Oddly, even though I know that I hold fundamentally different beliefs from anyone who would even think to use that word as an insult, it still stings. Somehow, being called a rebel kind of appeals to me, but being called a heretic gets under the skin. It has a mysterious power to wound me.

I actually haven’t thought about the sting of the “H” word in a while, but it came up in an on-line conversation yesterday, as a Lutheran colleague of mine posted on Facebook that she had had that word hurled at her by a female worshiper at an ecumenical Good Friday service in Massachusetts.  It grabbed my attention, and sent me to the dictionary to learn more about it. There’s something so empowering about learning about words – perhaps especially those that are used against a person – and this case was no different.  Do you know the etymology of the word heretic?:

“one who holds a doctrine at variance with established or dominant standards,” mid-14c., from Old French eretique (14c., Modern French hérétique), from Church Latin haereticus “of or belonging to a heresy,” as a noun, “a heretic,” from Greek hairetikos meaning – are you ready? – “able to choose.”

Did you hear that? Going back to its roots, a heretic is one who is able to choose. Who knew?

I want to spend a little time with the our scripture passage for the morning, Luke’s gospel account of the women at the tomb. I remember a few years back when my smarty-pants brother responded to my writing about Good Friday by saying, “Spoiler alert: it ends well.” But it’s easy to forget that for those people who had been with Jesus for the three years of his ministry, that “happy ending” of resurrection wasn’t anything like obvious. The women went to the tomb, as Luke tells us, fully intending to carry out the ritual cleansing and other preparations that their religion required be done for all dead bodies. They didn’t go there expecting resurrection – I have to assume they approached the tomb in deep grief, because the leader they loved and in whom they had placed their hopes had been killed before their very eyes, in the most gruesome and humiliating way. They may well have been fearful, too, that Rome had eyes and spies everywhere. Caring tenderly for the body of a man who had been publicly executed for treason was something that would have required courage.

That’s right – on a day that, knowing the outcome, we think of as a day of jubilation from start to finish, it can be hard to remember that it started out in the shadows of early dawn, with a combination of grief and steely-eyed courage – the kind of courage that only came to the women, who were already marginalized on so many levels that they had little to lose. They simply didn’t worry about their own safety and just set about getting the job done. Then came puzzlement – which might be the understatement of the year, as the massive stone had been rolled away, and the body of their beloved friend was missing. Then terror – they were terrified, Luke tells us – at the sudden apparition of two dazzling strangers. So … grief, courage, puzzlement, terror … and then perhaps more puzzlement, as the strangers spoke in riddles, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” That’s a great question, isn’t it?

And then … they remembered. The women (Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women) remembered … it’s as if all of those overwhelming feelings – the grief, confusion, terror, exhaustion – all of those feelings clouded their minds up until the moment that they were asked the clarifying angelic question – why do you look for the living among the dead? – and suddenly they remembered that they had a choice. They remembered everything Jesus had taught them, how he had shown his love through action … how he had explained complex truths through parables that didn’t require rigid literalism but instead led to belief through human connection. They remembered that he was unbound by the societal norms and religious legalism of his age … that he was unconstricted by the separations that divide people from each other … they remembered that God is present even when God seems very, very absent.

The women had a choice – to go back to the business as usual way of living, or to live as people who had tasted the Living Water and need never thirst again. They were, in the original sense, heretics – people able to choose. And they chose the Way of Christ, and the fact that the male disciples didn’t think much of their “idle tales” didn’t matter at all. They knew grief, then doubt, fear, then hope, and then they remembered. They made their choice.

Here is my truth: I may be a heretic, but the stories of Holy Week matter to me, and very deeply. In a world that is steeped in sorrows – with injustice, gun violence, and mistreatment of children and the earth, with toxic water in our cities and leaking pipelines in our sacred places, with massive bombs and threats of more – in a world like our world, it can be easy to believe that Empire will always be dominant. I choose to believe differently. Our Holy Week stories show the ways in which, illogical as it may seem, with Jesus, vulnerability becomes strength … love trumps hate … the Kin-dom of God is more powerful than Empire … and death itself is conquered.

The people who have called me a heretic have meant it badly, to be sure. They have meant that I don’t have a grasp of the truth because of my failure to take literally what I believe Jesus meant to be more than literal (not less than literal).  Does that make me a  heretic? I am, after all, “able to choose,” and I choose to believe the Truth of the resurrection, which is that ultimately, as Anne Lamott puts it “grace bats last” … Love Wins.

In fact, we all have choices. We can continue to look for the living among the dead, or we can remember and choose resurrection … Like the women, we can be emboldened to tell the story fearlessly, and then live as if it really is true.

(And you, are you a heretic, too?)