Daniel 6:6-23; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 24:1-12
Today, I want to talk briefly about stories. Michael Malone is a great local novelist who has written some of my favorite books, and I had occasion a few years ago to hear him speak about his writing. I should also mention that he’s married to a Duke English professor, so I imagine the part of his presentation I’m about to quote has been the topic of a few discussions at his home.
Malone said novelists know there are two great story plots in the world, one of which you find at the heart of any great story: 1) SOMEONE LEAVES HOME, or 2) SOMEONE COMES TO TOWN. These seem pretty simple, trajectories of departure and arrival, in fact not very significant in themselves, they’re so simple, but if you think about it, each provides such a basic and profound plot direction that – if what he said is true – it might say something significant about our human nature. Now, I should say that as soon as someone makes a generalizing statement like this, and we’ve thought about the stories of which it’s true, we also start thinking about stories of which it seems not to be true, to which Malone probably would say, even the stories that don’t conform to these patterns are deliberately not conforming in reaction to those plots, and so are still determined and shaped by them in a negative way. I also should say that I’m no expert on world literature, and I don’t know if his statement would be true about stories from south Asia or Japan or central Africa, but I have read a good bit of European and American stories, and it at least seems to be generally true of many of the stories I know. Moby Dick pushes the boundaries of how far one can go from home. “Sounder” combines both plot lines. The Prodigal Son story we read a couple of weeks ago is first “someone leaves home” and THEN “someone (the same son) comes to town.” In Pinocchio, the Blue Fairy comes to town, but the real plot is Pinocchio leaving home to become real.
If Malone is right, at least about stories in Western culture, I think it may be in part due to the Christian story of human life. The drama of redemption begins when someone leaves home – Adam and Eve reject the divine home, the life of gift and self-forgetting, and leave Eden. Then Abraham leaves home to follow God. Moses comes to town to set his people free. The people of Israel come to town in Canaan to settle down. They leave home then in the exile. And then Jesus comes to town to gather all God’s people out of their exile, even people who didn’t know they belonged to God. BUT, what makes the story of Jesus great and profound, is that he wasn’t just another someone (even a great someone like Moses) coming to town. Jesus’ “coming to town”, arriving on the scene, was AT THE SAME TIME, God “leaving home” in order to come to us and save us from our exile, to bring us back to our divine home. And, where we are in our story now, we await Jesus again to come to town to complete our redemption.
Setting aside Michael Malone’s description of stories, consider a different one, the classic division of stories into comedy and tragedy. The plot, the basic direction of drama has been defined as either comic or tragic. Comedy, as a kind of story, is not about the jokes that make us laugh in TV comedy shows, but is defined by the more basic element of a happy ending. So Dante’s “Divine Comedy” is not a comedy because it has jokes, but because – although it begins in hell with “The Inferno” – it has a happy ending in heaven with “Paradiso”. Tragedy has a sad ending. In comedy, conflict is resolved by relationships being restored to harmony; in tragedy, conflict is resolved by the death of the main character. In comedy, the main character becomes reconnected into community; in tragedy, the hero becomes more and more isolated, into the final and ultimate isolation of death. Comedy is about the continuation of life, which is why classical comedies like Shakespeare’s so often end in with a betrothal party or a wedding. Tragedy is about the inevitability of death, which is why so often before the main character dies he finds that his efforts to resolve the conflict he’s in have only contributed to his doom. “Comedies end when someone gets hitched, tragedies, when someone dies.” (Professor Hilbert, “Stranger Than Fiction”)
Peter Pan is a marvelous story for several reasons, and one is its rebellion against these conventions. The story most of you are familiar with, I hope, is that of a boy in magical NeverNeverland, who never grows up, in combat with the pirate Captain Hook over the fate of his companions that he’s brought from our world to visit. For all of it’s insight into the relationship between child and parent, and its sensitivity to the glittering borderlands between childhood and adulthood (like friendship and risk and romance), finally it’s about an option to avoid death AND life-in-relationship. Captain Hook is the embodiment of adulthood, with mortality, death, hunting for him in the form of the crocodile that swallowed a clock, ticking down his life every time he approaches Hook. Peter combats this mortality with a child’s bravado, crowing in response to Hook’s threats as they duel that “To die would be a grand adventure.” But after defeating Hook, he also refuses to return home with Wendy and grow up with her. He represents the very human fantasy of eternal freedom on our own terms, free from death and free from the entangling commitments in which humans build life. It exemplifies what perhaps should be distinguished from tragedy and comedy – fantasy.
In a recent movie called “Stranger Than Fiction,” an IRS agent named Harold Crick, who is living an isolated, dull, monotonous life one day begins to hear a woman’s voice narrating his life as he brushes his teeth. He hears her describing is boring and compulsive activities in detail as he does them. She comments on the life he has regulated down to the minute by his wristwatch, catching the bus every morning at the exact same time just after it arrives at the stop, taking pre-determined lunch breaks that last exactly 47.5 minutes, and otherwise living his life by a suffocating, precisely timed routine that leaves no room for spontaneity or intimacy. He begins to worry about himself (and why no one else hears the voice) as he hears it. He tries ignoring the voice, but a few days after this begins, he hears the voice say while he’s standing at a bus stop going home from work, “Little did he know that this simple seemingly innocuous act would result in his imminent death.” Harold responds by shouting out to the voice in frustration, “What? What? Hey! HELLOOO! What? Why? Why MY death? HELLO? Excuse me? WHEN?”
Now Harold is seriously worried. He consults a psychologist, but rejects her diagnosis and advice, and then decides that since his life is being narrated, he should consult a literature professor to find out what is happening and how to take control of his life. The Professor Hilbert that he consults gradually accepts that Crick’s life is in fact being narrated and helpfully suggests that Crick needs to determine whether Crick is living inside a comedy or a tragedy. He asks Harold questions to begin to discover this, “Have you met anyone who simply might loathe the very core of you?” Harold tells him, “I’m an IRS agent. Everyone hates me.” Hilbert replies, “That sounds like a comedy to me!” But there’s no denying that the ominous death warning points toward tragedy. Harold begins to fall in love with a counter-cultural, anti-war bakery owner whom he’s auditing, and tries to build a relationship with her to move toward comedy and a happy ending in which he “gets hitched” and lives. He takes other measures with varying success to turn his life away from a mysterious and tragic end, to embrace joy and creativity, but still hears the voice. The voice says that the watch by which he measures his life activities will cause his death.
Then he discovers that the voice he’s been hearing is that of a famous novelist named Karen Eiffel, whom Professor Hilbert describes as famous for killing off her main characters at the end of her books. It turns out that Eiffel has been having writer’s block, unable to come up with a satisfying way to end his life, which she has tapped into and taken over as the central character of her new book. Harold succeeds in tracking down Karen Eiffel and explaining his problem, and pleads with her not to end his life. Distraught that her fictional character has a real, independent life and personality, Eiffel says that she’s already written out a draft of it in hand, but hasn’t typed it into her manuscript. She won’t agree to change the ending, but does let him borrow the draft while she thinks about it. Harold can’t bring himself to read it, but takes it to Professor Hilbert, who reads it and tells him, “You have to die, Harold. This is her best book ever, and if you don’t die, it won’t be the same.” Harold says, “You don’t understand that this isn’t a story to me, it’s my life! I want to live!” Professor Hilbert says, “I’m sorry, Harold,” and tells him to read the story, which he does and takes back to her, without further plea or protest.
The next day, Karen Eiffel begins to type the ending she had composed, and Harold hears it narrating his morning as he goes to his bus stop, explaining that when his watch had malfunctioned and been reset a few days ago, he had reset it a couple of minutes earlier than it actually was, so that he arrived that morning at his bus stop early. When a boy riding his bike past the bus stop falls from his bike into the street right in front of Harold, Harold uses his extra moments to step down and pick him up, and then as the bus he was awaiting pressed down on him, he pushed the boy onto the sidewalk without a word and then Harold is struck head on by the bus as it stops. We see Eiffel’s hands tremble at the typewriter, and then compose another ending in which Harold survives and is taken to the hospital. She types a narration by one of his doctors, that a shard of glass from his wristwatch pressed against an artery and kept Harold from dying by bleeding to death, as he otherwise would have, and so his watch saved his life.
Karen Eiffel takes her finished typed manuscript to Professor Hilbert to read, and when he’s done, he says, “It’s good. It’s not great, not a masterpiece, but it’s good.” Eiffel tells him that she couldn’t bring herself to kill him at the end, and the professor asks her, “Because he’s real?” And the writer says to him, “Because it’s a book about a man who doesn’t know he’s about to die. And then dies. But if a man does know he’s about to die and dies anyway. Dies- dies willingly, knowing that he could stop it, then- I mean, isn’t that the type of man who you want to keep alive?”
The writer Karen Eiffel, a great contemplator of death, does something she had not done before, just as the Author of the universe did something never done before in Jesus of Nazareth. God did what Karen Eiffel did in this movie, and though the movie is not one about Christian characters, it is a plot made possible because 2000 years ago, God wrote something in the life of Jesus of Nazareth more real than either comedy or tragedy. God wrote himself into our story as a man who knows he’s going to die and dies anyway, not just to save one of us but to save us all, and to save us when we were trying to get him killed, like the counselors of Darius sought to kill Daniel. Jesus died willingly, knowing that he could stop it, that it was avoidable if he would let go of love. But he chose to die anyway. And that’s the man that God wanted alive so much he wrote a new ending to the story of the universe.
In the death and resurrection of Jesus, God wrote a story that was tragic, because Jesus looked death in the eye and accepted it as necessary, embracing it in its most extreme pain and loneliness. But it was more than tragedy. God wrote a story that was comic, because new life and new community came into the world on the first Easter. But it was more than comedy because death remains center-stage. It was something new, God’s new story, GOSPEL: for precisely THROUGH the death of self-giving sacrifice, God stopped the mouth of the lion of death and robbed the grave of its power over all people, whether criminals or kings. Through the willing death of Christ, God gave birth to new life and a new people in the Spirit of Jesus, to live as his risen Body in the world, extending his table to the hungry and hurt… to live unafraid of death. In this new story, God’s REAL story, our life and hope for a community of peace and plenty is not attained by AVOIDING death, but by accepting it in union with Jesus and his example. We read from the prophet Isaiah a couple of days ago words about God’s suffering servant that the church owned as about Jesus: “He was pierced because of our transgressions, and crushed for our iniquities, and by his wounds we were healed…. If you make the gift of his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and have long life…. Out of his anguish he shall see light and be satisfied…. My servant shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.” Creation out of nothing, life out of a tomb full only of death, forgiveness out of pain. All this offered to us as gift.
We are constantly tempted to turn the gospel story into something different. Popular culture reduces it to comedy of one sort or another, a happy ending we can attain by saying magic words to avoid the death that the Jesus of the gospel in fact invites us to. Secularism reduces it to tragedy, mouthing platitudes about Easter representing the spirit of spring’s renewal of life. The women at the tomb did not experience the terror of blinding light and vertigo because green grass and daffodil blossoms were sprouting; what they encountered was un-natural. Jesus’ grave was just like the rest of ours since then – it was no tunnel with a rear exit, but a final, ultimate, dead-end with no destination past it. Jesus Christ arisen from death is risen to freedom from all corruption and death. In the words of Paul (Rom. 6:9), “Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion.”
From the beginning, many have written off the resurrection story as a wish-fulfilling fantasy of the disciples, like Peter Pan, wanting freedom from death and pain so much they convince themselves this story is true. In Acts 10, Peter addresses the question of why Jesus didn’t just go show himself to Pilate and Herod Antipas and the temple crowds with the statement, “God raised him on the third day and made him manifest; not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”’ God in Jesus wanted to spread a story that moved by faith and love, not one that could be used to slap people over the head with affidavits. And it’s always been harder for some to believe that, than to believe that the apostles created a fictional resurrection to process their grief about Jesus’ death and then died themselves for the sake of that fiction.
But in the New Testament, as terrifying and puzzling as the risen Jesus is, the disciples recognize and name something that is different from a dream or a ghost, something NOT that, but instead an embodied presence conveying God’s reality in Jesus to them. And rather than evade suffering and death through a delusion, they accept persecutions and martyr deaths that could easily be avoided by admitting they made a mistake and let their imaginations run away with them. But it was no fantasy, no wish-fulfillment encountered that Easter. It was something more real even than the grave.
In the words of Rowan Williams, “Death and the hells of dereliction and abandonment eat people up, exhaust them, scrape them out, and bring them to nothing. Jesus is already empty, already poor, already nothing, for God is everything in him; and so the inexhaustible life of God meets death and eats it up and exhausts it. The resurrection is not a resuscitation; it is the gift of a new KIND of like, the life that exists on the far side of death and hell, of destruction and disintegration. [Jesus] will die no more…. He is no longer the prisoner of the past, not an historical memory, whose life is neatly tied up and put away. No, from now on he belongs to all people and all times, he is available to all. He is free.” Free to write our stories into stories of freedom, gospel stories, REAL stories beyond facile comedy or tragic doom. “By death, the death of obedience, of self-emptying, of gift and grace and mercy, Jesus has trampled death underfoot and shown us the way to life by union with the pattern of his death – his mercy, his self-emptying, his self–offering. By this we can, with him, pass from death to life and die for the life of all the world. We may stand with Jesus, life the life of God, share his freedom through service and giving of our whole being to God and God’s suffering world.” (Williams). Isn’t that the kind of story God wants to keep alive? That gospel story of divine life, life not past the grave but through the grave — SHATTERING, emptying the grave, is the greatest adventure. Christ is arisen. He is arisen indeed. Alleluia.