A sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Resurrection Sunday, March 27, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the day are Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 118:1-2,14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; and St. Luke 24:1-12. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)
Litigation attorneys and fishermen have something in common… We like to tell stories. Fishermen tell about “the one that got away.” Trial lawyers prefer to tell about the ones we got!
So … although it may not seem to have much to do with faith or religion or Easter … I’m going to tell you about the last medical malpractice claim I defended before retiring from active law practice.
Here’s what happened. A guy was out fishing at Lake Mead, the big reservoir on the Colorado River behind Boulder Dam in Southern Nevada, and stupidly scooped a rattlesnake out the lake (they swim … but you didn’t know that). Of course, it bit him on the forearm.
So he was taken to Boulder City Hospital where my client was an emergency physician.
Now you may not know this, but in most small proprietary hospitals, the emergency room doctors are not members of the hospital’s medical staff; they are contractors and they don’t have admitting privileges. So after he did what he thought was appropriate treatment (which was to stabilize the patient and administer ten vials of antivenom), he transferred the man’s care to the next available physician on the staff. That doctor, unfortunately, did not continue the antivenom therapy and the patient’s forearm muscle eventually necrotized and he lost much of the use of his arm. So, of course, he sued.
His attorney, who was an old friend of mine (we’d been associates together in the same law firm), named just about everyone you could think of as defendants in the law suit: the ambulance service, the hospital, my doctor, the second doctor, and a few other people. When I got the case from my client’s malpractice insurer, the first thing I did was call my colleague and do a little bit of what we call “informal discovery,” you know, just ask him about the case, about his evidence, his theory of liability, and so forth. I asked him if he was relying on any medical texts and he told me that he was using the third edition of the book Snake Venom Poisoning by Dr. Findlay E. Russell.
After our conversation, I went down to the University Medical Center, where I had library privileges, to see if they had the book; I discovered that there was a fourth edition which they had, so I checked it out. Back at my office reading the foreword, I learned that Dr. Russell was a faculty member at the University of Arizona Medical School in Tucson, so I called him on the phone. “Dr. Russell,” I said, “my name’s Eric Funston and I’m a lawyer in Las Vegas, Nevada. I’m defending an emergency physician in a snake bite case. May I ask if anyone has contacted you on behalf any of these people?” and I list the plaintiff and all the defendants. “No,” was Dr. Russell’s answer. “In that case, sir, may I retain your services as a consultant and possibly as an expert witness?”
Long story short, Dr. Russell, who Wikipedia even today says “was widely acknowledged as one of the world’s leading authorities on snakes and the pharmacology of snake venoms,” reviewed my case and said that my client had done everything to the highest standard of care. My old friend, the plaintiff’s attorney, agreed to dismiss the claim against my client, hired Dr. Russell to testify on the plaintiff’s behalf, and got a big verdict against the hospital staff doctor whose care was, in Fin Russell’s opinion, abysmally bad.
Now, I’m sure, you’re really wondering what that has to do with Easter. Bear with me, we’ll get to that. But before we do, let’s take a look at the way Luke tells the story of Jesus’ Resurrection.
He tells us that “the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee came to the tomb;” these would be “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and” others. The find the tomb open and empty, and they are spoken to by “two men in dazzling clothes,” who ask them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” Terrified, the run to find the disciples and tell them what has happened. Luke doesn’t tell us about that conversation, but John tells us, that “Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord.’” Luke then says that “these words seemed to [the disciples] an idle tale, and they did not believe [the women].” Our translation is rather generous and understated, by the way; the original Greek implies that they thought what she and the other women said was delirious, lunatic insanity, stark raving madness. They thought it was like a fairy tale out of a story book!
And, for us, that’s pretty much what it is, isn’t it? It’s something we know about only because it’s in this book of stories. Frankly, it is a little unbelievable; it’s hard to accept because it challenges and undermines everything we expect of reality. As Professor Anna Carter Florence, who teaches preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary, said in an interview a few years ago, “If the dead don’t stay dead, what can you count on?” No wonder the disciples did not believe the “idle tale” of Mary Magdalene and the other women. So, folks, if you have a hard time with this notion of resurrection, that’s OK! You’re in good company. In fact, you’re probably in better company than the people who point to the story book and say, “I believe it because it’s in the Bible,” and then “urge you to get acquainted with the Bible personally” because “God [will] speak to you through its pages.” (Answers by Billy Graham) That may well be, but I tend to agree with Dr. David Lose, the president of Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia, who said, “If you don’t find resurrection at least a little hard to believe, you probably aren’t taking it very seriously!”
What John tells us Mary Magdalene said to the disciples that first Easter morning may well have been the best sermon ever preached. Five short words, “I have seen the Lord.” “It’s hard to imagine a better sermon than [this]. Short and memorable and to the point. Mary’s sermon is a homiletical gem – and maybe the truest sermon ever preached.” (Karoline Lewis) And this is where my snake bite case informs my understanding of Easter and Christ’s Resurrection.
Mary Magdalene said, “I have seen the Lord.” She did not say, “Some men told….” She did not say, “I am personally acquainted with the Bible.” She said, “I have seen the Lord. I have seen ‘the author of peace and lover of concord.’ I have seen ‘the one through whom all things were made.’ I have ‘the author of our salvation.’”
Like my fellow attorney, the apostles had the book; they knew their Scriptures well. But Mary Magdalen had the Person; she had seen the Lord. As Marcus Borg says, “It as a fact of history that Jesus was experienced after his death as a living figure of the present and not just as a dearly-remembered figure of the past.” We can read the story book over and over again, until we know everything there is to know about Jesus as “a dearly-remembered figure of the past,” but until his Resurrection becomes more than a third-person account, until it is a first-person experience, there will always be that lingering doubt. This is why Peter Lockhart, a theologian in the Uniting Church of Australia, insists that the Resurrection “should be an intensely personal thing; that each one of us should feel and know and celebrate the mystery of the resurrection of Jesus.” Easter is the gift of encountering the resurrected Jesus in our own lives now, of entering into the eternal divine life now, of experiencing the power of the Holy Spirit now.
Like my colleague, we can read the book and be content, if a little doubtful, about what we read there. Or … we can search out the Author. From the very beginning, those who wish to be disciples of Jesus have had good reason to wonder about and even doubt the truth of the Resurrection, especially those who have only become “acquainted with the Bible.” But if we limit ourselves to that, to reading the stories of long ago, we ought to hear those two men in dazzling clothes asking us, as they asked the women, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Look into the future among the living, move into that future! We know there will be tragedy, and trauma, and tedium, and disappointment; there will also be joy, and wonder, and love, and laughter. And in all of them, there will be Jesus. The Risen Christ, the author of peace and lover of concord, the one through whom all things were made, the author of our salvation, will be present. He will prevail in our individual lives, in the church, and in the world. For those who have made the effort to meet the Author, there is no doubt at all.
Resurrection is more than a third-person account, more than a story in a book; it is … it can be … it should be … a first-person experience, a meeting with the Author.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.