For me, the week of celebrating resurrection is the cornerstone of the year. Why this is, I share below. As I know it does for many of you, this week brings closer within my grasp the incredible promise that those who we lost in this life will be restored to us again. The following was written within hours of my sister’s death, to be read at her memorial. Nearly ten years later, I share it with you. Her name was Susie. In her last 3 years of life she cared for 18 foster children, as well as the 4 children she brought into the world. May God be glorified in her death as He was in her life.
John 1:4 — In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.
As the book of John opens we are introduced to an entity named the Word, who became flesh and dwelt among us. He brought an omnipotent kind of light to the world, and this light is strong enough to offer us all an otherwise impossible inheritance: the right to be sons and daughters of God. He also came in grace and truth, and from the fullness of that grace we have received one blessing after another.
Knowing Susie Graves as my sister was also one blessing after another. My memories of her begin with knowing a mother like figure. Thirteen when I was born, Susie was more like a mother to me than a sister: as I began kindergarten she was finishing high school. She worked after school jobs and, like my brother, shared her earnings by buying me coloring books and generally spoiling me. I could have had no doubt that I was loved, partially because of her.
As I grew into womanhood, we shared a new bond as sisters. As I recovered from knee surgery in high school, she and my brother were by my side. As they witnessed my first steps as a baby, they were there again to hold me as I learned to walk again. It was a scary time but, yet again, there she was. On my wedding day, she was to my immediate left. On her dying day, I was face to face with her, racing to find just the right words to communicate all that she had meant. Perhaps I should have simply said: “Susie, you have given one blessing after another.”
Within hours of her death, I thought of the story of Lazarus and knew that I would not read this story in the same way ever again. Today I can picture Mary running out to meet Jesus, knowing that His presence could have saved her brother’s life. The book of John says that Mary fell at the feet of Christ. Mary seemed willing to do anything to see her brother alive again, and now I can finally understand how that must have felt. We know that Jesus was so moved by her grief that He also wept. Although Christ knew that He would restore Lazarus to life, his love for these sisters and their grief compelled his perfect compassion. He restored Lazarus to life, and I know He will also resurrect my sister to life. I praise God today, not only for the power that He will share to restore us to never-ending life, but also for the compassion that drove Jesus to cry with Mary that day. This realization is powerful, as I know that today Christ is weeping with me, and that His comfort is perfect and the epitome of love.
Christ also redefined love later in the same book: when He is preparing his closest friends to live without Him, he shows the full extent of His love by washing their feet. Those of you who knew Susie well, knew that she also showed the full extent of her love in a similar manner. By opening her home to a little boy named Cooper whose parents were lost to him; by sacrificing daily for Emily, Caitlin, Hannah, and Amanda; by serving her husband Shayne; by watching over her little sister Erin; by creating a home for children that are often forgotten about and thereby, practicing pure religion: it is in these ways that Susie showed the full extent of her love. I praise God today for His grace upon my sister, which allowed this love to come to life after the example of our Lord.
Death has already been swallowed up in victory the day that Jesus fought death and won. Through this, I know that these memories with my beloved sister are a blink of an eye compared to the life that awaits us in heaven. Perhaps what allowed Christ to stop weeping the day he comforted Martha was, not just his vision of Lazarus coming back to life temporarily, but even more the sight of Lazarus rejoicing by the side of Mary and Martha in heaven. Therefore, we too “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen,” knowing that if we cling to Christ our own mortality will be swallowed up in life. I praise God for helping me to know Him more because of Susie and for his promise to protect her and keep her safe as a perfect Father until we are together again.
Prayer: God, your promise of resurrection defines our approach to death, and drives our fearlessness in life, as we remain rooted in Your love. Thank you. God, I don’t understand why death is essential, having lost so much as a result. But I look to you, and I trust You with what I do not understand. I believe that whatever I suffer, You suffered it first. Please send your Spirit and humility as a balm; deliver your resurrection promise in ways all who are hurting can see, even today. Thank you for the compassion of Jesus that led Him to restore life, no matter the cost to Him. May I follow in His steps.
Too often Christians get distracted by things of this world … things that just don’t matter to God. But Christians often take things of this world too seriously. “God chooses the foolish things of this world to confound the wise.”
Christians get caught up in the minutia of the world, for instance complaining about people not saying “Merry Christmas” or an ice cream shop in Canada named “Sweet Jesus.” But Christianity is so much more than that. And God just doesn’t care about a Canadian ice cream shop.
“Instead of doing things God’s way, we often want to use the powerful things of this world to accomplish our own powerful ends.”
“Idle Tales for April Fools'”
Sermon by The Rev. Joe Gunby
Luke 24: 1-11
April 1, 2018 • Easter Sunday
Christianity is no fun if there’s no resurrection. The resurrection of the body of Jesus Christ is at the root of God’s authority over every other authority.
Powerful people — from kings to emperors, to dictators to Presidents — have consistently used death as a tool of power. It’s the final enforcement for rulers — if you disagree with them or cross them, you are met with death. The fact that Jesus conquered human death renders the powerful powerless. The resurrection of Jesus is an interruption in the power that allows us to transform the world for God’s intention.
Christian hope is not blind optimism. It’s a deep trust that the intentions of God will not be overcome.
“From First Fruits to Last Battle”
Sermon by The Rev. Joe Gunby
1 Corinthians 15:12-26
May 14, 2017
Those were the first words Jesus said when he appeared to the disciples after his resurrection. Jesus could’ve gone anywhere after his resurrection. He could’ve gone to the Pharisees, showing them how wrong they were about him. He could’ve gone to Pontius Pilate and lectured him about true justice. Even if he went to the disciples, he could’ve expressed his disappointment at how they abandoned him.
But Jesus went to them and said, “Peace.”
Peace and forgiveness is important as we discern our own Christianity, in our personal lives and as a church. We must make sure our minds and hearts are filled with the Holy Spirit and the love of God in our decisions and interactions. Without Jesus, are actions are empty.
“Open Hearts, Open Minds, Locked Doors”
Sermon by The Rev. Joe Gunby
John 20: 19-38
April 23, 2017 • Second Sunday of Easter
But what does Jesus’ resurrection truly mean to us? Are we really ready to accept the risen Jesus? Or are we too comfortable with our earthly life that we prefer to live our lives as if Jesus is dead?
If we are truly ready to accept the risen Jesus, and the eternal life offered to us, that we need to relinquish our need for certainty and comfort. Our desire of safety must disappear. Because that default setting that tells us to follow our bliss, maximize our profits and seek earthly pleasure is not the life Jesus demands of us.
If we really accept Jesus, we must fly away from those habits that signal to us that Jesus is dead. He is risen! It’s up to us to change our ways and accept the risen Jesus.
“The Jesus I Never Knew”
Sermon by The Rev. Joe Gunby
John 20: 1, 11-18
April 16, 2017 • Easter Sunday
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
March 27, 2016 • Easter Sunday
Audio for this sermon is unavailable.
John begins the Easter story with the words “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark . . .” These words should not come as a surprise to those of us who have, during Lent, become acquainted with the darkness, what we called the Dark Wood, that place where all we seem to have is a past and we cannot see into the future. Nothing to look forward to, whether it concerns our health, our relationships, our family, our careers – all of a sudden there is a dead end, when all that had made life meaningful seems broken, broken beyond mending, and we are left with millions of memories and all kinds of pressures and anxieties, unable to see ahead.
Mary Magdalene had gone to the tomb of Jesus while it was still dark. He had been her friend and teacher. And now he was dead; crucified in a humiliating public execution, and now lying in a borrowed tomb. When he died on that Friday afternoon, more expired than just his body. The hope of hundreds of people had died with him, for they thought he was the Messiah. From the day he first appeared in Galilee, preaching the good news of the kingdom of God and doing acts of power, the word had spread that Israel’s long awaited deliverer had arrived and with it the hopes of the people began to rise. But then as swiftly as his fortunes had risen, the tide turned against him, and although he’d tried to prepare them for what would happen, before they could take it in, he’d been arrested, tried, convicted and put to death.
At the point where they had come to expect so much, suddenly it was all over. Their hope had been crucified, and the darkness was overwhelming. Surely this story of the first Easter tells us that no one is ever ready to truly encounter Easter until he or she has spent some time in the darkness where hope cannot be seen, and where new life is the last thing one would expect.
As Mary made her way in the darkness to the tomb, perhaps she reflected on memories of happier times that now seemed so far away, almost like a dream. Maybe she wanted a few moments alone simply to be as close as she could be to the one she had loved and followed, the way we have felt at one time or another when we’ve returned to the gravesite of a loved one after the funeral and graveside services are over – to let the reality sink in. It is the closest we can get to them now, and the relationship we had is in the past, not forgotten – never forgotten – but in the past, the subject of reminiscence, the time for saying things like, “do you remember when he said . . .,” or “I’ll thought I’d never stop laughing when she . . .,” or “Nobody played the piano, or baked a cake, or told a joke like . . ..”
When Mary arrived at the tomb she was horrified to find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. It did not occur to her that she was encountering something that God had done. She thought grave robbers had added even more pain to her already broken heart by stealing away Jesus’ body. And so she ran to tell Peter and John, who in turn ran to the tomb to see for themselves and they confirm her worst fears. Jesus is gone. The tomb is empty.
With nothing to see there, Peter and John return to the others, but Mary lingers, not knowing what to do next. I really sympathize with her next move – you know how it is when you’ve lost something, and you know it just has to be there – so you go back again and again the last place you saw it, thinking maybe this time it will turn up. So it is with Mary; she takes one more look inside the tomb just in case they all somehow missed something, but Jesus isn’t there.
Two angels have arrived, however. Unlike in the other gospels, they make no grand announcement that Jesus has risen and gone to Galilee. They simply ask her why she’s crying. And she tells them what is on her heart. “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they have laid him.” All she wants is his body back. All she wants is a shrine for her memories, a place where she can come to mourn her friend and the hopes that had died with him.
Now we get to the good part! As she turns away from the tomb, she sees a man standing there whom she supposes to be the gardener. He asks her the same question the angels had asked: “Why are you weeping?” and so she goes through the whole story yet again and asks him if he’s taken Jesus’ body away. Then the unexpected thing happens in the darkness of her life, the gardener calls her by name, “Mary.” And she experiences, not what she was looking for – the body of her dead friend – but what she never expected to find or see again – the living Jesus, the resurrected Lord.
It is almost more hope than she can handle, and she reaches out in her joy to embrace Jesus, but the risen Christ says “Do not hold on to me.” Now, if I’d been writing the gospel, there’d be a few extra verses that included the opportunity for a reunion hug, and then maybe Jesus would say something like, “Relax, I’m back. Let’s get the others, put our heads together and make a plan.” That’s what Mary wanted – to go back to the way things used to be before that horrible Friday three days ago that had changed everything, back to the old, familiar life where everything was normal and somewhat predictable, back to the safety of the known.
But one thing she learned that day, and we know it too – we can never go back – never back to the days before that fateful Friday, never back to the days before the doctor’s diagnosis, or the employer’s pink slip, or the or the day mama died.
What we miss and beg God to give back is gone. Easter does not change that. So we cannot cling to the hope that Jesus will take us back to the way it used to be. The only way out of the darkness is to move ahead. And the only one who can lead the way is the risen Christ, not the old teacher we once knew. We can’t hold on to him where we are, but we have to let go and allow him to take us where he is going. He calls us to follow him, not to hang on to him. And following Jesus is a never-ending process of discovery because he is always on the move, unable to be confined to the past, and waiting to be revealed in new ways to us in the future.
Easter is the first day of the new week – the new life – and we cannot understand the true joy and meaning of Easter until we realize that God has given us in the resurrection a new perspective on life. The God whom Paul described in Romans as “the One who can make things that are out of things that are not and the one who can make dead things come to life again” (Romans 4:17) is a factor to be reckoned with as we think about the future. We are not alone in our struggles in life; it is not simply our strength, our intelligence, our abilities, our determination or our willpower that are the only forces at work in our lives. God is in our lives too – out there ahead of us, taking what seems dead and beyond mending, and bringing it back to life again.
And if God’s undeniable presence is factored in as we contemplate the future, despair is undone and hopelessness disappears. We can no longer look on our brokenness and say we are beyond mending. We know that if God was not only able but willing to take the broken body of Jesus and raise him back to life, what can God not do? What lives, what families, what careers, what relationships can God not mend?
The effect of Easter on us is to change forever the way we use the words “possible” and “impossible.” Our God is alive and going before us into the future, and therefore our despair is inappropriate because it concludes something about the future that we finite human beings have no ability to conclude.
Because Easter has happened, we know that the God who leads us into the future, who had the power to raise Jesus from the dead, also had the mercy to send him back to the ones who had betrayed him. Even Judas, who had really made a terrible mess of his life, I believe would have received pardon and forgiveness from Jesus if he had not despaired of his future. What he did was not much worse than what Peter did. There would have been mercy enough for him if he’d stayed around to see what God could do with what he had done. He didn’t understand that out there in the future there is a God powerful enough to make dead things come to life again and who is merciful enough to be willing to do it.
Out of the brokenness of our own lives, in times when we feel lost in the Dark Wood, God is there too. As we’ve said before, God does some of God’s best work in the dark. So in the darkness, before we know or are aware, God is shaping our tomorrows, bringing life out of death. And there is enough power and enough mercy in God to deal with whatever difficulties we may face. Jesus died on the first Good Friday, but despair died on Easter morning.
After the resurrection Mary was never the same again; nor is anyone else who has experienced the risen Christ. That is the good news. That is what the gospel proclaims. We do not have to worry about what lies ahead for us because we know that Christ has already gone on before us and waits for us there. Darkness is banished; despair is no more; our risen savior is on the move and he’s calling our names. Thanks be to God. Alleluia! Amen.
Easter Week, painted with OSUMC sunday school children, Ink and watercolor on 4x8ft panel.
Matthew 26:36-38 (NIV) Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
Thank god I go to a church that welcomes trouble makers like me. For example, in talking to an Atlanta-area United Methodist pastor last year, I think I stopped him a bit short when I said the ‘hocus pocus’ of Jesus ascension wasn’t what made Easter and Jesus important to me. Usually, I try remember what Katie and many others at Oconee Street have said: it’s the power of story (not the suspension of logic) that makes the Bible so meaningful. The ’hocus pocus’ line just slipped out.:)
But for me, the story of Jesus in Gethsemane is still the most meaningful part of the Jesus Easter story. It’s no wonder that I put that image of Jesus at Gethsemane (based on painting by Michael D. O’Brien) centrally in the mural of Easter week painted with Ms. Jamie’s sunday school kids.
Pencil and Pen on paper (on one of Sharon’s clipboard meant for the kids:)
To do the right thing in the face of fearful consequences is, for me, one of the most powerful things about Jesus’ story (I did the sketch) a few weeks ago (during Lisa’s sermon:). Jesus knew this was the likely consequence!!!
And here is a 13-minute podcast of an incredible story of the same thing: doing the right thing in the face of fear:
It’s about a Catholic parish priest, Father Michael Pfleger, in Chicago’s South Side and includes an amazing audioclip of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
I’ve already written more than I intended, so to the …
Prayer: God, don’t let me forget that You were with Jesus throughout as you surely were with MLK and have been with Father Pfleger. I want to do the right thing, even in the face of my fears and doubts. I’ll try to remember Gethsemane. Thank you for your help God. And thank you for Jesus.
“It’s Only the Beginning”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
April 5, 2015 • Easter Sunday
Mark’s account of Easter morning is the earliest on record. The women, who had stood by the cross on Friday, go to Jesus’ burial site early on Sunday morning. They are there to do what women traditionally did in those days, anoint the body with spices. There wasn’t time before the Sabbath began on Friday evening to perform this duty, and so Jesus had lain in his borrowed tomb, uncared for, unwashed, unprepared for too long. They’d come now to do at least that for him after the horrible events that had taken place. But they are surprised by what they find. The grave is open. There is a young man in dazzling white standing within, who seems almost like some kind of heavenly administrative assistant explaining why they can’t have a quick word with the boss – “Jesus – no-he’s not here now. You just missed him. But he left a message for you; he wants you to tell the disciples and Peter that he’s gone on to Galilee and will meet them there.” You kind of expect him to say, “Now, is there anything else I can do for you? Have a nice day!”
But it is no longer a nice day for them; shocked and frightened, they run from the tomb and instead of going to tell the disciples, they run the other way. And Mark says, “They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.” Finis. Done. The End. Fred Craddock’s response to this version of the first Easter morning is to exclaim “Is this any way to run a resurrection?”[i]
Apparently not, because by the second century, scribes were regularly adding additions to the abrupt ending to bring some kind of closure to the story. If you look at the end of Mark’s gospel you can see both a shorter and a longer ending, where enough is added to make it sound like the other gospels: Jesus appears, the disciples rejoice, and Jesus tells them what they need to do next. These additions seem forced, a little bit too happy, and a little bit too neat and tidy. But we can understand the desire of the scribes to do something with that awkward ending that leaves everything kind of hanging.
But what if Mark meant it to be that way? If we can discount the imaginative stories that surmise he must have been interrupted mid-sentence by some terrible trauma perhaps a heart attack or arrest by a Roman soldier, or that his original conclusion was so shocking that those who’d inherited his manuscript just ripped off the offensive part and pretended that was all there was, we are left with the real possibility that he crafted an incomplete ending by design. That he left the story hanging on this moment of fear and silence for a reason.
What might that be? The women were totally silent. And to my way of thinking, silence is a first appropriate response. There are times, aren’t there, when we are afraid, shocked by what we have learned or seen, when we don’t know exactly what is happening or why, when we can’t figure it all out, and we are aware of how little we really do know and how little we can control. There are those times when silence is required, when we feel overwhelmed and need time to process, to evaluate, to think about what has happened. There will be time to talk later; but first we need to be quiet. Silence can be a good thing – “Be still, and know that I am God,” the psalmist wrote. “Mary pondered these things in her heart,” Luke writes about the birth of Jesus.
Fear is also an appropriate first response. The women have come to the tomb of their good friend who had been executed by the Roman government as a criminal. The disciples had all scattered; they hadn’t even stayed around to watch the crucifixion. Followers of Jesus were few and far between. And they were in a hostile place. What if they’d gone out and started telling the news they’d heard – Jesus is alive again. How long would they have been allowed to get away with that before word would get back to the powers that be? Luke says, at the end of Jesus’ ministry, he had 120 believers. That is less than the membership of this congregation! What chance would they have in a Jerusalem filled with a million or so pilgrims there for the Passover? Of course they’re afraid.
But maybe they are afraid and silent for other reasons as well. Maybe this news frightened them because they had begun to accept the death of the hope they shared earlier because of this friend who had cared for them and taught and shown them more about God than they’d ever imagined, and who had shared with them a dream of the kingdom of God where children had enough to eat, sick people got well, and old people would not worry about who would care for them.
Their hope had come crashing down on Friday when Jesus was put to death and buried. Peace on earth? Dead. Justice for all? Dead. Unconditional love? Dead. But the young man had said Jesus has been raised; Jesus is alive. God’s hope is still alive on earth. They were scared because in some ways, hope is harder than death. And they were silent because they couldn’t begin to imagine what that meant for them and for the others. They were in brand new territory where death was not the final answer. And if this is how God operates in the world, what will happen next? What might be required of them. Maybe they’d had enough excitement and danger; maybe they wanted to go back home and find some degree of normalcy.
Maybe they were afraid and silent because if Jesus were risen from the dead, then it meant that God had vindicated Jesus and was announcing that a new creation had begun, a new kind of order had been inaugurated. Not the order of Caesar, not the Roman rules that said might makes right, strike before your struck, watch your back, fight fire with fire, do unto others before they do unto you, but a reign of peace on earth, justice, equality, and unconditional love for all.
Maybe they were frightened too because this news was an invitation to participate in this hopeful new world. They could stop living scared because death had lost its grip on them, and without fear, there was nothing holding them back. But how do you do that when you’ve been scared for so long?
Fear and silence held them for a time, but not forever, because here we are today. Somebody finally found her voice; somebody finally overcame her fear. And, we have the same choices. Will we tell or won’t we? And each of us will have a different story because of our different experiences and understandings. For me, I have to say that over the years my faith has changed from thinking that resurrection is primarily about what happens after we die. I was taught as a child that God raised Jesus from the dead and took him to heaven, and because we believe in Jesus, God will do the same thing for us.
But I know now that we can’t simply worship Jesus in our private lives alone, look forward to going to “heaven” someday, and not be concerned about creating “heaven on earth” because resurrection is not all about having a get out of jail free card or an escape hatch from the world to an “otherworldly” heaven. Experience has shown me that resurrection is about so much more than life after death. It is about life before death. And our religion is not simply about going to heaven when we die, but about doing everything we can to enable God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. We have received the same invitation that the silent women received on that first Easter Sunday so long ago. And just as it was a new beginning for them, so it is for us as well.
But first, we have to overcome our own silence and fear and replace them with resurrection hope that enables us to envision and work for a world where the old rules don’t apply: A world where the meek do inherit the earth. A world where the poor in spirit have the only riches worth having, and where among the poor, bread is blessed and broken and given and everyone has enough. A world where the peacemakers know everyone as children of God, where enemies are turned into sisters and brothers and weapons rust and corrode or are turned into plowshares.
There is still work to do; the kingdom has not come completely yet. Death may be beaten, but it isn’t gone yet. Caesar may be gone, but his successors are still in business. Food may be more plentiful in some places in the world, but not yet everywhere. Prejudice and ignorance and animosity have been overcome in many areas, but we know only too well that they can still raise their ugly heads just when we think they’re done.
The silence at the end of Mark’s gospel waits to be overcome by people of every generation, waits for you and for me to overcome our fears, and to share the good news of Easter, to proclaim through our words and our actions : “God’s hope is alive on earth. Though wounded, peace lives. Though killed, justice rises. Though buried, love goes ahead of us to Galilee; there we will see him, just as he told us.”[ii] Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Fred Craddock, “He is Not Here,” Christian Century, April 2003.
[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Easter Sunday, 2006,” Canon Chapel, Emory University, Atlanta, GA.
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
April 20, 2014: Easter Sunday
Matthew 28: 1-10
If there were only two stories we could tell about the life of Jesus, we probably would chose the beginning and the end: the story of his birth and the story of his death, both equally marvelous and mysterious. Just as we blend together the birth narratives so that we can have a full Christmas pageant, complete with a stable, shepherds, sheep and choirs of angels, as well as wise men, camels, gold, frankincense, myrrh and a bright star, we also blend crucifixion or resurrection narratives to make one, full colorful story. Hence sermon series and choir cantatas are written, for example, on the “seven last words of Christ,” while not in any one of the gospels does Jesus speak seven distinct sentences from the cross. But if you collect the sayings from all four gospels, you can come up with them.
Likewise, we blend the four different gospel accounts of the resurrection into one seamless story of sad, grieving women carrying spices to anoint Jesus’ body and worrying about how they are going to move the heavy stone from in front of the tomb, but on arrival they are surprised and frightened by an angel or two, an empty tomb, and a risen Lord. As we like to tell it, they run away from the tomb back to the disciples, who then do their own running towards the tomb to check out the fantastic story and see for themselves.
But if you were listening closely to Matthew’s account, maybe you noticed some significant differences from the generic version. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary do not go burdened down with grief and carrying spices to anoint Jesus’ dead body, worrying about the gravestone blocking the entrance to the tomb. As Matthew tells it, these two women have been close by Jesus the whole time, as if they were on watch. At the crucifixion, they looked on from a distance; as Joseph of Arimathea placed Jesus’ body in the tomb and rolled “a great stone to close the door of the tomb,” Matthew notes “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.” And then first thing the next morning, there they are again, not to anoint Jesus, but simply “to see the tomb.” They are there to check things out.
Why would they do that? Stanley Hauwerwas suggests it is because they believed what Jesus had promised them, that after three days he would be raised.[i] So there is no need for spices, no need to worry about the stone. They came to see the tomb, to see if it was empty as he had promised. And sure enough, with a great fanfare, much more than in the other gospels, an angel rolls back the stone in their presence, invites them inside to check it out, and then tells them to go and tell the other disciples. They leave, Matthew says filled “with fear and with great joy.” On their way back, they meet Jesus, and they know immediately who he is, unlike in John’s version where Mary Magdalene mistakes him for the gardener. He was their friend, and now their risen Lord. They fall down and worship him, an act of idolatry for sure, unless they realize that this is the Son of God, worthy of worship.
Both the angel and Jesus tell the women “do not be afraid.” And after that encounter, they do not act afraid; their great joy has obviously tempered their fear. And the disciples are not overwhelmed by fear either; they don’t even return to the tomb to double check the women’s report, but go directly, as Matthew says, “to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.” (v.16)
However, not everyone’s fear is mitigated by great joy in Matthew’s gospel. Fear is reserved for the governor, the guards at the tomb, and the chief priests. These people had staked their futures on the world as they knew it, the world they had mastered, the world of political power and military might, the world of religious privilege and authority, the world of money and influence. But the events of Easter morning had proven that none of those “sure things,” those supposed “real” sources of power had been enough to keep Jesus dead and buried and their world comfortable and secure.
I wonder though if Pilate was completely surprised by this turn of events. After all, his wife had sent word to him during his questioning of Jesus, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him” (26:19), and when the chief priests and Pharisees came to him after the crucifixion with concerns about security around the tomb, he told them perhaps with resignation, “You have a guard of soldiers; go make it as secure as you can.” (27:65) So they went and sealed the stone that Joseph of Arimathea had rolled in front of the tomb and stood guard over it. But that wasn’t enough. Matthew writes, “An angel, whose appearance was like lightening, and his clothing as white as snow” appeared and “the guards shook and became like dead men.” They were overcome by their fear, immobilized, frozen in place. I kind of feel for them! I think I would have had much the same reaction.
But, our gospel lesson this morning reminds us that the joy of our faith allows us to live with our fears and become immobilized. Fear of what may happen to our children in our increasingly dangerous world is balanced by joy at the blessing they are to us, and we pray will be to the world. Fear about the fate of a loved one struggling with illness is borne by remembering the joy in the gift that person has been to us. Fear about the future amid various problems, anything from job security to climate change to the possibility of war in Ukraine, is held in abeyance by joy in the present moment surrounded by those we love. And closer to home, the fears we have experienced during this past year from fire and displacement have been assuaged and comforted by the great joys we have experienced along the way through the kindness of others, and through what we can call none other than “God moments.”
It is important to remember that the announcement of resurrection did not take completely away every last bit of fear that the women or the disciples had. But the hope it gave them and the joy they experienced enabled them to keep faith amid their fears, control their anxiety, and do what had to be done. And this kind of behavior is what we call courage. “And courage is precisely what Easter is about.”[ii]
Some would have us believe that if we have enough faith, then everything in life is a rose garden, and if there are bumps along the way, or thorns on the roses to keep my metaphors straight, then it is because our faith is lacking. I don’t think that’s true. That is not the testimony of the Hebrew scriptures. That wasn’t Jesus’ experience. That wasn’t the experience of the apostles. Faith simply does not result in a charmed life. In fact sometimes it gives us problems we otherwise could have avoided. But faith does also give us the ability to keep on keeping on even in the disappointments, the difficulties, and the fearful events of life.
When Jesus tells the women “Do not be afraid” it reflects the reality of our lives in this world. We would be kidding ourselves if we denied there is much to fear in our daily lives. And yet the good news of the resurrection of Christ creates the possibility for joy, for hope, for courage because it changes our understanding of everything. It tells us that the sufferings and difficulties of life are transient – yes, they are real, but they do not have the last word. In the resurrection we have the assurance that justice will overcome injustice, love is greater than hate, and life is stronger than death.
It tells us that God is more than a match for any emptiness, any darkness that we face, and that fear cannot hold on to us for long; it does not determine our living. We can step over sleeping guards; go to Galilee, or do whatever else is necessary to take the next step. I think our being back here for worship this morning is testimony to that truth.
Fear, despair, and doubt may be inevitable parts of our lives, but in the end we have the resurrection promise that joy, hope, and faith will ultimately prevail. I have read that at the funeral of Winston Churchill – a service that he had planned — a single trumpeter stood at the west end of St. Paul’s Cathedral and sounded “Taps,” the music that is frequently played at the end of military funerals and signals dusk and the close of another day. But after a moment of stillness following the last notes, another trumpeter standing at the east end of St. Paul’s played “Reveille,” the song of the morning and the call to a new day.[iii]
The resurrection of Christ signals above and beyond all else that God is a God of a new day, a new life, and never-ending possibility. The good news of Christ’s resurrection does not take away our fear – wouldn’t that be nice? What it does is offer us courage and hope by fixing us within the sure promise that God has the last word, and that God’s word is always a word of light and life, grace and mercy, love and peace.[iv] Thanks be to God. Amen
[i] Stanley Hauwerwas, Matthew,2006, 245.
[ii] David Lose, ”Easter Courage,” workingpreacher.org., 4/16/2014.
Psalm 130 Musical Setting: words by Christopher Idle (1975), music a Scottish traditional melody (MacPherson’s Farewell); harmony by David Iliff (1990); arrangement and voices by Rebecca Simpson-Litke (2014); recording/editing by David Litke (2014)
April 14, 2014
This time of year, I often experience a real sense of longing – longing for the end of a stressful school year, longing for the warm weather and freshness of spring after a hard winter, longing for the good news of Easter – and as a result, I usually find myself reflecting on one of my favorite Bible passages, Psalm 130. Whenever I read this Psalm, I can’t help but hear the beautiful Scottish melody that I grew up singing in church and that I would like to share with you now.
As a music theorist, I am fascinated by the structure of music and the powerful effect it has on us as listeners. When you listen to the recording that is included with this Lenten reflection, you will notice that the psalm is divided by the musical setting into three verses with a repeated refrain. In the first verse, a single voice calls out to God, expressing grief and trouble:
Up from the depths I cry to God: O listen, Lord, to me; O hear my voice in this distress, this mire of misery.
More voices are added in the second and third verses, as both individuals and the community as a whole confess their sins and are reassured of God’s great capacity to forgive and to redeem:
If you, my God, should measure guilt, who then could ever stand? But those who fear your name will find forgiveness from your hand. O Israel, set your hope on God whose mercy is supreme: the nation mourning for its sin God surely will redeem.
I particularly love the way in which the shape of this melody illustrates the message of the text, rising up in pitch as we try to lift our voices, our anxieties, our hopes, our fears up to a place where God can hear them, and then dropping down in pitch as we admit our failures and shortcomings.
However, there is one place where the melody doesn’t seem to match what the text is communicating. If you listen carefully, you will notice that the melodic line climbs up in pitch during “the nation mourning for its sin” and then falls down in pitch during “God surely will redeem.” What are we as listeners to make of this unexpected reversal? Wouldn’t it make more sense to sink down into our shameful mourning, and then be raised up by God’s redemption?
Rather than interpret this change in the melody-text correspondence as a flaw in the musical setting, I have come to understand it as a reminder that God has the power to turn our lives upside down, to change darkness into light and death into life, if only we are willing to listen to the message.
As I think about the journey of the week ahead, I am tempted to want to skip right from the exuberance of Palm Sunday to the good news of the Resurrection, but I know that it is through the trials of Good Friday and the darkness of Holy Saturday that Easter Sunday gains its awesome power. In this way, the refrain of Psalm 130 helps me to feel, to express, and to participate in the hopeful longing and waiting of Holy Week:
I wait for God with all my heart, my hope is in God’s word; and more than watchers for the dawn I’m longing for you, God.