Matthew 27:62 The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, [faith leaders] gathered before Pilate 63 and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64 Therefore command the tomb to 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.” 65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.” 66 So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.
28 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 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.” 8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
I have a secret. Easter annoys me a little. I’m not a fan of the early morning. I don’t like surprises (okay, maybe that’s not a secret). So we have Easter. Big Surprise. At Dawn. It’s a problem.
I read today before what is typical for Easter, because I like that Holy Saturday scene in Matthew. By now, Pilate is tired of this whole business. Some folks come to him worried that Jesus hasn’t been buried well enough. Pilate snaps: “Why don’t you go check. You have guards. Make the tomb as secure as you can.”
It may be that this moment in Matthew is a foil for a kind of locked down believing. You see, it is faith leaders who are really worried about the outcome of Jesus’ story. It is people like me who want Pilate to be sure that there is no surprise in the morning. Frankly, I do like my world to be controllable and predictable. Who doesn’t? That’s why preaching Easter during a pandemic is tricky: we are looking to faith to center ourselves and give us a sense of security and purpose. I am there with you today; let us make it as secure as we can!
In one my favorite Easter sermons, however, Frederick Buechner accuses preachers and pew sitters all over the world of doing just that: securing ourselves against the power of a miracle. “Oh, the resurrection is really just a spiritual metaphor, a metaphor for saying that Jesus’ life lives on in us.” “The resurrection is a symbol of the renewal of life like, butterflies emerging from their cocoons, tulips blooming after a long winter.” All nice. It will preach — I’ve done it myself a time or two. The trouble is that it has nothing whatsoever to do with what the bible says about Resurrection.
The bible doesn’t pretend that Easter is explainable or even believable. There is no metaphor for it. No one saw it happen. Jesus was dead. Three days in a tomb dead. The disciples themselves were are as good as dead; wandering on their own, they won’t last for long. But three days later, on Sunday morning a surprise, the breaking dawn of an impossible possibility. The tomb is empty.
In the days ahead the disciples will meet their Risen Lord; it will change their lives and ours forever. You are reading or hearing this message because of what happened to them so long age. There is an unbroken line from their experience and to you today. All we are told in Scripture is that it is true. And now you have a choice to make on his great gettin’ up morning: put your trust in Easter, or go make your world as comfortable and secure as you can. It is probably best to put off letting Easter loose until after this lockdown is over.
Easter is beyond surprising; it is ludicrous. I am not going to pretend otherwise. I certainly don’t want you to be comfortable with the idea of Resurrection. To accept it would mean that your world is not what you have been led to believe. An empty tomb at the center of our being would mean that ultimately reality is beyond our control and beyond our power to fully comprehend. At the center is mystery and eternal life.
Worse yet, trusting Easter would require you to rethink your life.To join your story to the resurrection of a poor, shamed Rabbi who ate with outcasts and hung from a cross as a loser among thieves, would mean that power, privilege and success, have nothing whatsoever to do with life, Living with a capital L. Secure your life against Easter as best you can. Where’s the duct tape? I want be sure that tomb is sealed up tightly.
And we haven’t yet faced the biggest obstacle to resurrection faith. In order to make it to Easter we must look death squarely in the eye. The power of death over this world, today, is overwhelmingly persuasive: virus, disease, hatred, prejudice, suffering, injustice. There are some tulips that will never bloom, and all it takes are the tears of a single suffering child to devastate hope. The question before us is will we let that fear defeat us.
Shortly before Easter in 2010, an Earthquake in Haiti killed over 233,000 people. During the lightless and terrifying night after the quake, alongside cries of help, there were other voices. Six Methodist aid workers were trapped beneath the rubble. With each breath a struggle, someone began to sing. I’ve got peace like a river. I’ve got peace like a river. And like good Methodists, others joined. I’ve got peace like a river in my soul. I’ve got joy like a fountain ... A tomb became a church. Life was the victor, at least for a moment. When I am afraid, I sing that song.
Friends, choose life. Life eternal with a capital L. This is the core of what I have come to believe: death may be the loudest voice in our world, but it is not the most defiant, and it never, ever the last word. The last Word is God’s. On Good Friday we remember that old story of love’s defeat by human hands. It is repeated, in kind, every day; but, today we hear something surprising. Though as delicate as gossamer and as vulnerable as a child’s tears, God’s love for us is persistent, unthinkable. There is no power that can defeat it. Whatever else I may or may not believe, I firmly trust that there is nothing, nothing in life and or in death or in all creation that can separate you from love of God, in Christ Jesus our Lord. That is enough. It is enough to give me courage. It is more than enough to face this day.
Christ is Risen. Alleluia. There is something we know that the powers of the hatred and death do not. Though painfully vulnerable — to our eyes, defeated — the love of God is raising creation in the midst of us. In every moment calling humanity to life … to love Eternal. I can’t explain it. I can’t give you the evidence. Like the existence of black holes in the universe, or an empty tomb at center of our faith, all I can do is point to the places in the world where I behold it, though I do not understand.
Just a few hours after the devastation of the 2010 earthquake, in the darkness of the first powerless night, Haitian Christians gathered in the streets and began to sing. This year, I hear that song in their voices, from Italians reaching out with music to support one another across balconies of isolation; in locked down spirits cheering doctors, nurses and essential workers as their shifts change. In the midst of darkness, a song sung since the first morning of world is heard: Alleluia! alleluia! For some reporters it was unbelievable. In that Haitian night, Anderson Cooper was incredulous: how could they sing and dance at a time like that. Unbelievable, unless …
Unless there is a surprise on Easter morning. The Spirit of God, present in us — vulnerable and delicate to be sure — will not be silenced. In such moments the veil between heaven and earth is lifted, and the one who does not will suffering and evil is revealed, standing defiantly in the midst of it to save us. Light shines in the darkness and the darkness will never, ever overcome it. Christ is risen. Alleluia! Alleluia!
Each of one us will die one day, that is not in question. There may be a corner of our hearts dead already, just waiting for someone or something to reach in and call it to life. This can happen no matter how old your, no matter how spent you feel. Open your hearts to the impossible possibility that there is power in the world that can accomplish in you far more than you can ask or imagine. The question before us today is have we lived? Let us make our lives count for the good.
As we spend these weeks in social isolation, we have some time to reflect on that question. I have been. We are called to walk in the morning light of God’s limitless compassion for the world. On this great gettin’ up morning. You have a choice to make. Make your life as secure as can; or you can throw your soul, your life, your all, into the triumphant dawn of God’s undefeatable love for the world. I have my own doubts to be sure, but in the midst of them, as best I can, I have decided to choose life. Christ is risen. Alleluia. Alleluia. Amen.
-- Pastor Mark Sturgess
Rev. Mark F. Sturgess