April 20, 2014
Christ is risen! It’s wonderful to be gathered with all of you today for a joyful occasion, instead of for a funeral for a change. We’ve had far too many of those since last Easter, haven’t we—especially lately? And yet, when I began working on my sermon for this Easter morning, preparing for this day of triumphant hymns and vibrant colors, the story that came to my mind was one about a funeral. Winston Churchill’s funeral, to be exact. Perhaps you’ve heard this one, but bear with me because I think it bears repeating.
At the close of the funeral service that Churchill planned for himself, a single trumpeter stood at the west end of St. Paul’s Abby and sounded “Taps,” the song that signals dusk and the close of day. We hear it played frequently at the end of a military funeral. After a moment of stillness following the last plaintive note of that song, another trumpeter stood up—this time at the east end of St. Paul’s, facing the rising sun—and played “Reveille,” the song of the morning and the call to a new day.
It’s such a beautiful, hopeful story, isn’t it? The idea of a new morning after a dark night? But it can be hard to trust the promise of a new dawn if you’ve been going through a tough time and still see only darkness. Which may be the case for more than a few people here. Rest assured, you are in good company this Easter morning. The women who went to Jesus’ tomb on that first Easter day were not wearing pretty new Easter bonnets and humming “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today.” They were heading to the cemetery with heavy hearts, because the last time they saw Jesus, the Messiah on whom they had pinned all their hopes and dreams, he was being brutally executed in public. They are grieving and hurt and confused. They are walking toward a grave that is guarded by armed enemy soldiers. It is not a scene of unbridled Easter joy. Yet as they arrive at the tomb, suddenly angels appear, bearing this incredible message: “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised.”
Throughout Scripture,“Do not be afraid” is the hallmark of good news. Angels and messengers always begin their declarations of God’s promises to act with this bit of encouragement. It was particularly needed on this occasion. To my mind, Matthew paints the most alarming picture of the resurrection out of all four gospel accounts. First, there is the earthquake—maybe an after-shock, or antiphonal response, to the earthquake that took place when Jesus died. Next—and remember, only in Matthew’s account is the stone still in front of the entrance of the tomb when the women arrive on scene—there is a dramatic moment when an angel of the Lord descends, rolls back the stone and SITS on it! And the angel is not a chubby cherub with wings. The angel has a face like lightning and clothing whiter than Tide could ever hope to get them. The whole thing sounds quite terrifying. The guards at the tomb (another feature distinct to Matthew’s Easter story) immediately faint in terror.
And then? Is there swelling optimistic music and a slow-motion spectacle of Jesus emerging from the tomb, like Lazarus did in our Gospel reading a few weeks ago? No. After all that, the tomb is empty. That’s scary too, because means that something really unexpected has been going on in the dark behind that rock.
Maybe that can be a comfort today. Theologian Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Resurrection is always announced with Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets, bright streaming light. But it did not happen that way. If it happened in a cave, it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air…. Let this sink in: new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.”
But that is hard for us to grasp, and it would have been for the women on that first Easter morning too. No wonder the angel begins by speaking words of comfort and reassurance! “Don’t be afraid.” But here’s the kicker: that’s not the end of the angel’s message—not for them, and not for us. The women are still afraid, the text says, even as they are filled with joy. In the midst of their fear and joy the angel commands them: “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.”
They are afraid, but they are not let off the hook because of that. There is still ministry to do, the Good News to share! We are not allowed to wallow in our lack of understanding or faith, but must push through it. There is work for us to do, stories we need to tell. And what I love best about Matthew’s story is that, even though the angel says Jesus will meet the women in Galilee, it appears Jesus couldn’t wait that long! Instead, he meets them on the road, eager to add his “Don’t be afraid” to the angel’s. He just couldn’t stay away from the people he loved. And I say, let’s take that to heart. Jesus can’t bear to be away from us, but finds us on the road, wishes us peace, calms our fears. Then the women can go on. Then they are empowered to do what they have been asked to do: invite the rest of the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee. And Jesus does that for us too.
Now among the details of the story that jump out at us, the fact that Jesus intends to meet his disciples in Galilee might seem unimportant. But in Matthew’s Gospel, Galilee is always used to represent a “gateway to the world.” Think Ellis Island. Or the United Nations. Galilee is that place where people of every language and culture and custom intermingle. Jesus intends to be seen not in the Temple in Jerusalem, not in his hometown in synagogue in Nazareth, but in a place where Gentiles and all kinds of other strangers would be present.
So this detail is actually in keeping with the way Matthew shows God at work, in unlikely places among all kinds of people. Think about it. When was the first time in Matthew’s Gospel an angel showed up? Remember back to the very beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, when an angel tells a terrified Joseph that his fiancee is going to bear the child of God, and that he should go ahead and marry her, all appearances to the contrary? And of course, not long after that another angel makes an appearance to warn Joseph to take Mary and the newborn baby out of town. The Holy family become refugees in a foreign place, a gentle reminder to us all that Jesus was never meant to be just among Israelites. In other news, angels warn three wise foreigners not to tell King Herod where they’ve encountered the Savior of the world.
And now the angels have come to us in Madison, WI, this Easter morning, urging us not to be afraid. Jesus is not in the tomb. Jesus is on the loose! He’s out in the world, at home with the least likely and the most holy. Even in the darkest places and among the most terrified believers, Jesus is busily bringing something new to life. And Jesus sends us out in peace to run with the women to tell the others that Jesus is alive. Against all odds, the angels have commanded us to bear witness to what we have seen and heard. Jesus will meet us on the way.
We don’t need to wait till we feel secure in our faith, certain of our theologies. We live lives tinged by both fear and joy. We may fear whether we will have a job in the year to come, but experience joy with the colleagues that surround us. We may fear the fate of a loved one struggling with illness and still rejoice in the gift that person has been to us. We may fear national and global problems, but still find joy in the present moment. We may fear the future of our congregation and our church, and yet experience joy in our call to proclaim the gospel.
The announcement of resurrection doesn’t take away all fear. What it does do is enable us to keep faith amid our fears, to share the Good News in spite of our anxiety. Maybe Easter is less about triumphant exuberance and more about courage. Some preach that coming to faith in Christ should smooth all the rough places of life and calm all the tremors of this world, but maybe what the Gospel gives us is more like the ability to keep standing on our feet amid the tremors, and the strength to persevere and maybe even to flourish when life is difficult.
“Do not be afraid.” Jesus knew the women were afraid that first Easter morning, and Jesus knows that some of us are afraid right now. But that doesn’t mean Jesus won’t be with us in the middle of our fears. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ we have God’s promise that life is stronger than death, love is greater than hate, mercy overcomes judgment, and all the sufferings and difficulties of this life are transient—real and challenging and sometimes truly painful—but they do not have the last word. We may continue to carry a little fear with our joy, a portion of despair amid hope, some doubt with our faith. But the resurrection promise is that joy, hope, and faith will ultimately prevail.
As Churchill perceived and demonstrated by giving “Reveille” the final place in his story, Christ’s resurrection signals above and beyond all else that our God is a God of new life and never-ending possibility. The Good News of Christ’s resurrection begins in the darkness. It might not take away all our fear, but it anchors us in the sure promise that God will have the last word, and that that word is one of light and life and grace and mercy and love and hope and peace. Christ is risen! Alleluia! In fear and joy, let’s go tell the others! Amen.