An Easter sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian church in Boise, Idaho
April 21, 2019
The first day of the week was dawning, and according to Matthew’s gospel, two women go to Jesus’ tomb. In the other gospels, the number of women changes, but in all the gospels, the Easter morning story is told to women.
Mary and the other Mary had also been there the night Jesus’ was buried, as Joseph of Arimathea took Jesus’ body, wrapped it in a linen cloth, laid it in Joseph’s own tomb, and rolled a great stone in front of the door. After Joseph left, the women remained.
At some point, they must have gone home. To rest. To feed their families and care for their tasks. But here they are, on the third day. Again.
Matthew doesn’t say why the women headed to the tomb that morning, as a new week was dawning. He says they went to see it.
We have the advantage of knowing how the story will end. We cheer the women on—yes! Go to the tomb! It’s good news! Go!
But they didn’t know they would hear good news.
Poet Jan Richardson says this about the women:
I have no cause
to linger beside
this place of death,
to keep vigil
where life has left,
and yet I cannot go,
cannot bring myself
to cleave myself
can only pray
that this waiting
might yet be a blessing
and this grieving
yet a blessing
and this stone
yet a blessing
and this silence
yet a blessing
We want to race to the celebration, but that isn’t why the women went to the tomb. And so I invite us to remember that. A faithful response to loss is grief, to not rush too quickly past it toward the hallelujahs.
I confess I tend to be a rusher. I rush past pain I’d rather not feel, and grief I’d rather not contemplate. I don’t do it on purpose. It comes from long practice, and probably a bit from temperament and natural instincts.
And so I’m trying to slow down. To feel my feelings in close to real time. And I’m appreciative of those of you who naturally move more slowly through grief and loss and pain.
I’m appreciative of the women at the tomb that morning, I want to be more like them, willing to go to stare at a tomb, the site of their most recent grief and loss. Facing death and pain squarely.
Some days we are called to bear witness to death, to stand vigil and remember the one we loved who has died. And then sometimes, in the midst of that, we find an angel upending everything we thought we knew about life and death.
And the Angel has a message for the women. There were also guards present that morning. But the message wasn’t for the men, playing dead on the ground.
It is worth considering why there were guards posted at the tomb, before we get back to the angel’s message.
They weren’t there to keep Jesus from leaving his tomb. They weren’t there because of faith that led them to believe what Jesus had said about tearing down the Temple and rebuilding it in 3 days. They were there because of conspiracy theories. Listen to this passage from the end of the previous chapter in Matthew’s gospel:
The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, ‘Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, “After three days I will rise again.” Therefore command that the tomb be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, “He has been raised from the dead”, and the last deception would be worse than the first.’ Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.’ So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.
The guards were there to keep Jesus’ followers from stealing his body so they could claim a resurrection and cause more trouble for Pilate.
This may seem odd to our modern ears. We might be more worried about zombies, or people becoming wights or Jon Snows (if you’re a fan of Game of Thrones). We don’t protect our dead from resurrection claims.
But it was a real concern in Jesus’ day. Not everyone believed in resurrection of the dead, but Matthew did. In his account of Jesus’ death, Matthew records that as Jesus took his last breath and died,
At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.”
And so the religious leaders send guards to protect the tomb from tomb raiders, and possibly from rising from the dead like the other bodies had just done. No wonder the guards drop down as if dead.
The Angel doesn’t have a message for the guards. He has a message for the women, the ones who were willing to actively face their grief.
‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’
And in an instant, their waiting turns to quick action. They race back to the disciples to deliver the message. With both fear and great joy, not pretending that those two emotions shouldn’t exist alongside each other.
As I think about these women, that long ago morning, I wonder what it is that we do in our lives that we do quickly with great joy.
Are we too busily scheduled to adjust for joy when it shows up in the least likely of times and places?
Joy isn’t something easy to schedule. “Tuesday at 10 am, I have an hour for joy before my conference call”.
Joy is in the unscripted moments. It can be fleeting. It often puts us at risk of looking silly.
Once, when I was in Kansas City during my sabbatical, I was worshiping with some of my friends while another one of our friends was preaching. And he said something in his sermon that made me and another friend laugh. Hard. And we tried to not laugh. Because the rest of the church was being very well behaved. And a state senator was sitting behind us with the appropriate gravitas. And our stifled laughter shook the pew.
I regret nothing.
And it wasn’t scripted. He claims he didn’t go for the laugh when he wrote the sermon. It reminds me of the other times in my life where great joy bubbled up in unexpected moments. I’m grateful I was there to hear that sermon with friends. I’m grateful for our terribly inappropriate laughter and the joy it brought.
Are we living lives with enough time and space to quickly be swept up by joy?
The women leave the tomb and turn toward home. The place of death has no more claim on them.
It is in that moment of acceptance, where they realize life is scary, and angels are terrifying, and Christ is risen, and they were witnesses, and joy is rising up from someplace deep with in them—unexpected and barely hoped for— when they are laughing even as tears run down their cheeks, that they encounter Jesus.
They didn’t need to see Jesus to feel joy and fear. They didn’t need to see him to trust the message. They were already on the road to deliver the message when they encountered him.
Jesus tells the women not to be afraid and repeats the message to go to Galilee, where the disciples will see Jesus.
He meets them in the midst of their complicated and messy lives as a new day is dawning.
And they fall to the ground, take hold of his feet and worship him.
They may not have much experience with stone rolling, lightning angels, or resurrection, but they know Jesus when they see him. They know who loved them until the end. And back.
Two thousand years later, we are much the same. We don’t understand the resurrection. We don’t get the physics of angels. We don’t know what kind of bleach they use to get their robes so sparkling white.
Much remains a mystery, which is as it should be. But don’t let the mystery leave you either terrified like the guards, or so distracted you miss the risen Lord when he shows up as we’re on our way to deliver important messages. Build your life to leave time and space for grief, for fear, for joy.
We are here today because the women accepted the mystery and ran right into Jesus on their way to tell the story.
And the story matters. The truth in the story of God conquering death still matters because the powers of this world want to tell a story where the only hope we have is in earthly leaders, today’s Pilates and Herods and chief priests.
Listen to these verses that follow the passage we heard:
“While they (the women) were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, ‘You must say, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ So the guards took the money and did as they were directed.”
What is the value of an outlandish story, told by a couple of women to the disciples, compared to the power of religious and political leaders who control the official news channels and who can pay the guards to tell whatever story they want?
Here’s the value.
Two thousand years later, we gather to tell the story told to women.
Two thousand years later, we proclaim resurrection, and testify to being Easter people, people who believe death has been defeated by love.
Two thousand years later, religious and political leaders are still trying to redact the message, still trying to deny that God could harness more power than their power that comes with money, might, and fame.
And so it is up to us to proclaim where we have seen resurrection. I was visiting with Bobbie yesterday at the hospital. And we were talking about the power of hearing the faith stories of other people, and of how those stories remind us of the moments in our own lives where we have seen resurrection.
If you don’t know her story of traveling by train to California, alone as a 12 year old girl, with her sisters, on a troop train during WW2, to meet up with their father, ask her to share it. The soldiers on that train, headed off to war, took care of her and her sisters, making sure they had food, that they were protected. She and I were remembering how it is in those moments of fear and uncertainty that God shows up and tells us of new life.
These are the stories we need to share and hear so that when the guards go on TV and claim that Jesus disciples came by night and stole Jesus’ body, we can recognize it the lie when it is told.
The powers of this world may try to tell us the Easter story is an idle tale told by women.
I pray we will have the audacity to believe in resurrection. I pray we will leave space in our lives to be overcome by fear and great joy. I pray we will tell our stories of resurrection and make time to hear the stories of other people’s resurrection too.
Go and tell.