Sunday, April 16, 2017

Fear & Great Joy

Year A
Matthew 28:1-10

The beginning of this Easter scene rings true to me.  The first sentence is so familiar with the women going to visit the grave of their executed rabbi.  It is what we would expect after the pain and loss of Good Friday, these two women going to pay their respects, walking to the sealed off tomb.  Though drenched in grief, the scene is also safe and predictable.  Death is contained inside the tomb, it was horrible what happened, but it’s all cleaned up now and tucked away.  Now the woman simply need to go through the proper grieving motions and lay their flowers outside near the stone that shields them from death and the obscene injustice they just experienced.  

This scene rings true for me because I know the safe, somewhat easy pull to hole up inside a self-made tomb.  My daughter is now fully healthy have three months of prolonged, though not serious, illness. Through our frustration and fear I jumped into control mode -- there were schedules, spreadsheets, medicine alerts on my phone and pages of instructions written to anyone who would came to care for the suffering patient.  Even though it was miserable, it was also safe and predictable, holing up in the house and focusing on nothing else but getting better, attempting to control what was never within my control anyways.  Sometimes, our tombs are just easier.

Yet, here we are on Easter morning! We know the death-filled tomb is not where the story stops.  And just when this scene feels all predictable and gloomy...everything changes.  Now you need to know something about the gospel according to Matthew.  If Matthew were alive today he would be writing scripts for major action movies -- because in his storytelling style, the dialogue is pretty weak, but it doesn’t matter because the action sequences are what we come for anyways.  So of course, in this resurrection story the quiet graveside scene literally bursts open with an earthquake! The whole earth is trembling at the prospect of resurrection, an angel appears right there on the tomb and the guards pass out from fear and shock. And then, this other worldly, angelic being rolls the giant boulder aside and says to the women, “Take a look, it’s empty, he is not here.”

Death has not won, predictability be gone, containment and confinement are not the ways of God -- everything is broken open, the earth is trembling, the women stand strong, the tomb is empty!

The scene is sensational and dramatic with the reach of the resurrection reaching cosmic levels.  It is all good news -- so why do we hear, twice, in this short scene these words “Do not be afraid.” First the angel says it to the women, “Do not be afraid.” and then the risen Jesus appears to them on their run back to Galilee and he says, “Do not be afraid.”

Why would our freshly risen Lord, God of heaven and earth, the one who has just defeated death be addressing the fear of two women? Our God is so good, in that as massive and cosmic as the power of the resurrection is, the promises of our God of grace and life are for us, the frightened, doubting, broken children of God. The angel and Jesus speak to our humanity knowing that even though there is now triumph and miracles, there is still the human experience of fear and loss.

Today, Easter worship services around the world will mirror the tone of the Matthew’s dramatic scene.  Bold, brilliant music fills our sanctuary, high liturgy, new Easter dresses and freshly pressed shirts abound.  We raise the bar on this celebratory day and the drama is high...just as gospel writer, Matthew, would want it.  Could we also make space in our Easter Sunday to hear the words of the angel and Jesus, to allow the promises of the resurrection to not only be big and dramatic, but to also be personal and for you.

What if Easter were not all about big music, fancy brunches and your Easter best?
What if the risen Lord were showing up in your life?
If you could hear the words “Do not be afraid” what tomb would burst open?
What stone could be rolled away?

Ruminating on the image of the stone rolled away brought to my memory a church I once visited in Baltimore, MD. This Lutheran church is located in the zip code which holds the most homicides per year in our country...almost all of them being drug related. The people of the church got tired of their parking lot being used for drug sales, they got tired for the corners of the church property not being safe and welcoming places. The first reaction was to lock up tighter, make their church building into a seemingly-safer, more predictable tomb-like building. Of course, nothing changed, no new life was moving, the hostility of the neighborhood was only rising. And then, the Spirit of God began to move in that place. The people of the church felt called to roll away the stone and respond with a love for the neighborhood and a love for the drug dealers and so they starting moving! This little Lutheran church partnered with NA – Narcotics Anonymous and began hosting meetings in their basement. The once a week meeting quickly filled up, so they moved to two a week, then three and in under a year the church was (and still is) hosting 8 meetings a week with over 800 substance addicted people attending.

New life being birthed, the power of the resurrection, it is never all easy or all good.  We live in the tension of great joy and trembling fear, promises of Easter morning and the pain of grief and loss.  That was true in Baltimore, the deals still happen on the corners, the unthinkable is all too common in that zip code. Yet, the people of God now have a voice too! The presence of NA empowered the church to begin an after school program...that church is a witness to the hope of new life.

I recently heard someone say, “We are an Easter people living in a Good Friday world.” And for a split second that sounded right to me.  The world out there does seem pretty dark and cruel.  But then a truth hit and I knew...that statement is alienating and wrong. Quite frankly, I’m not all that good and righteous... I’m not sure any of us are all that good and righteous to place ourselves in the glory of Easter morning and place the rest of the world in Good Friday. If we are an Easter people it is because of what Jesus has done...and if Jesus has raised us up with the brilliance of this day, then hasn’t Jesus also promised this new life to the world? We are not an Easter people living in a Good Friday world...we are God’s people living in God’s world.  The world is not stuck on a perpetual loop of Good Friday, if we want to cast “the world” aside like that, then we are the ones living without hope. God is alive, our Savior lives and this astounding, shocking, miraculous news is for the whole of this world that God so loves and it is for you.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, do not be afraid, for our Savior is not in the tomb.  God’s great love has once again shaken the earth with power, do not stay stuck in the tomb, but step out in faith and hope. Do not be afraid.

Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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