Easter Sermon, April 16
Wisdom from Wibaux returns next week. As is my custom, this week’s blog is a manuscript of the Easter sermon I preached on Sunday. The reason I do this annually after Easter Day is because, if you know me, I have more to say than I said. Therefore, below you will find the full sermon.
Last spring, Fr. Terry Hedrick and I went to New York City for a conference in the Burrough of Queens (Some of you know him – he used to be on our staff and currently teaches on Wednesdays at 4:30). If you go to NYC you have to go to Manhattan and in particular Times Square.
Earthquake in New York City: a Siren Call You Can Feel
We were standing on a street corner along with ten million other people – I am only exaggerating by a million or so – all of a sudden there was a police car with lights and siren trying to get through the congested traffic. I have a video to show you….when that police car got to the rear of the taxi cab…did you hear that unique sound? Standing at that street corner, I not only heard the sound but I felt it. I started to shake and the ground beneath me started to shake. When the police car moved on through the intersection, the strong vibration went away.
I am a rather curious person so when we got back to the hotel I started googling…”what is the unique sound coming from a NYPD police car when they are responding to an emergency?” Sure enough…there’s a name for it. A specialized siren called a rumbler. The rumbler even has its own Wikipedia page. It was designed because people are listening to music loudly in their cars or on their phones with earbuds…people are not paying attention….the rumbler shakes the car and the ground and creates intense vibration. It is designed to get the attention of people – driving or walking – who are distracted, disengaged, and distraught.
When Mary Magdalene and the other Mary as she is named in the Gospel Lesson for today, go to the tomb, they too are distracted, disengaged, disheartened and distraught. The one they have given up everything for, is dead. You know what that is like when you find yourself dealing with something heavy. Your mind is distracted, your spirit is disengaged, and your heart is distraught. You’ve been there, haven’t you? Perhaps even right now!
An Earthquake of Divine Intervention in the Matthew, Chapter 28
And so, in Matthew’s Gospel, the first thing that happens in the garden tomb is an earthquake! No, it says there was a great earthquake! I would imagine that got their attention. It certainly would me. What about you?
I was working out one Saturday morning at the Y when we had an earthquake. The lights went out, the air stopped moving, and the machines shook and the next thing I know the fire alarm is going off. It got my attention!
Matthew begins his resurrection story with an earthquake to illustrate an important theme of his gospel. God takes what is and dramatically enters into what is…
I am convinced this is what the God of the Universe does for entertainment. This is God’s hobby! J God loves breaking in. God loves breaking through. God breaks in to the distractions, God breaks through to the disheartened, the disengaged, and the distraught and gets our attention through some dramatic action to announce that something good is about to happen.
We are not Deists. We do not believe that God created the world and then pulled back, waved goodbye, as if to say, “Bye, bye, hope you do well!”
The whole of the Christian gospel – the good news – the news we have to proclaim is that God, in and through the person of Jesus, enters the muck and mire of the world in order to reconcile, to heal and to restore.
Matthew repeatedly shows us the God who is willing through the person of Jesus to get his hands and feet and brow – sweaty and bloody – for the sake of the world. This the God who brings good news and not just good advice!
So Mary Magdalene and the other woman feel the power of God through the earthquake.
An Angel Rolls Away the Stone
And then, they see the power of God in and through an angel – a heavenly messenger – who rolls back the tomb. The angel was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow…seeing the power of God in front of them….and then the angel does something strange. He sits on the stone. Only Matthew’s gospel says the angel sat on the stone…what is the symbolic meaning of that? Why is the angel sitting down on the stone?
- Was he worn out from moving the stone?
- Too small of an angel for too big of a job?
- Did his angel wings need a break from flapping?
- Was he trying to let everyone “chill out” because they are overwhelmed?
Isn’t it strange that the angel would sit down on the stone that blocked the entrance to the tomb?
On the biggest day of the year the chief angel is sitting down on the job. Go figure!
And yet, the angel hasn’t lost his persuasiveness or his ability to do his job, even if he is sitting down, because the text says…
Verse 4 “For fear of the angel, the guards shook and became like dead men.”
What’s going on here? I know one thing. Matthew is communicating something important with every detail of this Resurrection narrative. Nothing is to be lost. There’s no fat to cut away, if you will. It is all meat!
As Tom Long, a professor of homiletics, says, “These soldiers had what must surely be the unluckiest assignment in military history – making sure Jesus stayed in the grave.” Is it any wonder the soldiers are acting like zombies? They had one job – seemingly simple – and they blow it!
And there again, the angel may be sitting down, but he is still doing his job because he spoke to the women from his perch…
so the women feel the power of God…they see the power of God…and they hear the power of God when…
Verse 5, “…the angel said to the women, ‘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.”
Now what do the women do in response to the word from the seated angel?
What do they do once they hear the power of God through the angel? Do they:
- Have a theological conference to see if the angel is legit or not?
- Question the angel on the accuracy of his message?
- Come up with a list of reasons as to why it would not be a good idea to take this news to the men?
What do the women do?
Verse 8…so they left the tomb quickly….with fear and great joy and ran to tell his disciples….
Just as an aside…the angel tells the women to go proclaim the good news to the men and that’s exactly what they do.
If anyone asks you why it’s all right for women to be clergy – proclaimers of the Good News – when Jesus only had male disciples, you can tell them that at the resurrection, Jesus and his angel told the women to proclaim the good news to the men. I’m not saying that women are better. I am saying they tend to be more faithful and responsive when it comes to the things of God!
The text of Scripture says…the women left the tomb quickly…and it is in their running that they encounter Jesus.
There is something very important about that detail. The gospel story has women being asked to come and see (look in the tomb)…and then go and tell and in the midst of going…they encounter Jesus.
These women did not wait until they had an encounter with Jesus before leaving the garden scene.
They did not say, “Jesus, you show up first and then we will go and proclaim the miraculous!”
They could have said, “An empty tomb does not mean anything other than they moved his body!”
There is something very instructive about that for those of us who wait and see and wait and see and wait and see and wait and see before we do anything with what we have been waiting to see. But that’s another sermon for another time.
Verse 8…so they left the tomb quickly…with fear and great joy and ran to tell his disciples…
With fear and great joy…what a combination of emotions…
Have you ever experienced both fear and great joy at the same time? I have.
- New parents bringing home their new daughter or son…fear and great joy right? I remember when Meredith and I brought home Drew, our first born, from St. Joseph. We were on our own! Fear and great joy!
- New parents bringing home their newly adopted daughter or son…fear and great joy right?
- Maybe you see your children sleeping and you’re filled with joy and then you hear of a child being kidnapped and you’re immediately filled with fear.
- Stepping into a new job, a new school, a new relationship…fear is often coupled with joy.
- I think of persons coming back from recovery…fear and great joy!
- I think of Fr. Bounas….last Sunday when the Coptic Christians at the cathedral in Egypt were killed through an act of ISIS…he said….”We live with constant fear about what may happen as a result of the terrorists among us but we are Christians who believe that joy is stronger than fear, hope more powerful than despair and love is stronger than hate.” Fear and great joy!
Fear and great joy…
I don’t need to tell you today what most people feel more frequently if not continually and that is fear.
Because of our high level of fear, it is no wonder so many people are distracted, disengaged, disheartened and distraught. In the resurrection account according to Matthew, fear is mentioned 10 times. It’s a big deal! It was a big deal then and now!
I was doing chapel for the preschool a couple of years ago and I was talking about the Christmas story and told about the angel speaking to Mary, and the angel said, “Mary, do not be afraid…” and this little girl raised her hand and said, “Pastor Jeff, those angels are always saying that!” She was absolutely right! In every major story of the Bible the angels are always saying…be not afraid! Angel School 101 – always begin your messages “Be not afraid,” because you are dealing with human beings and they are deep down more skiddish than the sheep.
Everybody…hear this please… What keeps fear in check is joy.
What keeps fear from taking over the soul is joy. Genuine joy is always more powerful than fear!
This takes us back to the angel sitting on the stone. There’s a message here. What is it?Actually there are many messages here. What are they?
The angel sat on the stone….
Matthew is writing to a predominantly Jewish audience. The sitting of the angel on the stone is highly significant and his audience would know that it is a sign of something really important.
To sit is to relax…to relax is to say without words: it is over, it is finished, it is being fulfilled. It is done!
Who was the One who said, “It is finished?” Was it not Jesus who, in the seven last words of the cross, uttered, “It is finished?” What exactly did he mean by his words?
When Jesus went into the synagogue as recorded in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 4, it is recorded….
17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.
The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
And the writer of Hebrews says….
11 And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ[e] had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, “he sat down at the right hand of God,” 13 and since then has been waiting “until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.” 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. 15 And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying,
16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds,”
17 he also adds,
“I will remember[f] their sins and their lawless deeds no more.
In a few moments, we will recite The Apostles’ Creed. Do you remember Jesus?
….I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead
The angel sitting on the stone points to the One who by dying, destroyed our death and by rising, restored our life!
Easter means the death of sin, not the end of sin. It means that we are forgiven by the mercy of God as revealed in the sacrifice of Jesus! It means what the hymn says, “Jesus…breaks the power of canceled sin, he sets the prisoner free!”
It means what the spiritual song says, “My sin, not in part, but the whole, is nailed to the cross, I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
It means what the hymn says, “The vilest offender, who truly believes, that moment, from Jesus, a pardon receives. Praise the Lord!”
Easter is the death of death. It gives life to life! And life to death! And life to life after death! That’s the source of genuine joy and gratitude and Zoë life!
That’s what the women experienced on that Easter morning and that was the message they were given to share with the men…is it any wonder the text says….
Suddenly, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” Verses 9-10.
Galilee is a place…it is the place where Jesus called his first disciples and the beginning of Jesus’ physical ministry on earth. It’s the place where it all began.
But is not just a geographical place. It is a place in the heart.
Galilee is the place you go when you are lonely and afraid.
It is the place you go when you feel defeated and deflated.
It is the place you go when you are at the end of your rope and you don’t where to go and where to turn.
Galilee is the place where we are reminded we are not alone!
It is that place in the heart where we find hope, enthusiasm, love, grace, and forgiveness.
Galilee is the place in the heart where no unresolved guilt or toxic shame resides.
It is the place where we encounter Jesus and experience Zoë life.
As I close, people who have been to Galilee are people of great joy, in spite of fear!
The Fear and Joy of Ruby Bridges
I think of Ruby Bridges…do you remember Ruby Bridges? On the screen is the painting by Norman Rockwell – 1964. Ruby Bridges walked into William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans 56 years ago. Before her first day of first grade had ended, parents had emptied the school of white children in a massive boycott. Ruby learned alone that year, taught by the one teacher willing to remain.
Huge crowds of protesters gathered daily outside the school to shout slurs and death threats at Ruby. Throngs of angry whites waved Confederate flags, and some even shoved before Ruby an open child’s casket with a black doll inside. These expressions of public hatred remind us how unrestrained fear can quickly spiral into mob mentality.
Psychiatrist Robert Coles was studying children in the desegregating south in the 60’s. He took a personal interest in Ruby and met with her weekly. He noticed this unique combination of fear and great joy.
Ruby Bridges has been to Galilee. Have you?
One day Ruby’s teacher told Coles that she had noticed Ruby moving her lips as she was walking into school. So Coles asked her, “Who were you talking to, Ruby?” She said, “I was talking to God and praying for the people in the street.” “Why were you doing that, Ruby?” “Well, because I wanted to pray for them. Don’t you think they need praying for?” Coles responded affirmatively but pushed further. “Where did you learn that?” “From my mommy and daddy and the minister at church. I pray every morning and every afternoon when I go home.” Coles continued, “But Ruby, those people are so mean to you. You must have some other feelings besides just wanting to pray for them and hope God will be good to them….I always pray the same thing….’Please, dear God, forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing.’
Let me ask you…how did 6 year old Ruby get forgiveness embedded deeply into her character at such a young age?
There is only one explanation…Ruby’s parents, neither of whom could read or write took her to Galilee. She’s been to Galilee!
Let me ask you….Have you been to Galilee? If you have, you can go again! If you haven’t, you are always welcome.