Living Into Hope

April 16, 2017
Matthew 28:1-10; Psalm 23

Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed!)

It is one of those times when we have to practice saying this until we begin to believe it again. On Maundy Thursday, a day when in the Christian tradition we show humility by washing each other’s feet, our country dropped a 21,000 pound bomb, the Mother Of All Bombs, onto Afghanistan. Afghanistan, a country that has already been humbled and brought to its knees by decades of war. Part of me would rather look away. Why sit at the tomb of Afghanistan and waste time wondering what resurrection looks like?

That is only one tomb. Starvation on the African continent, civil war in Syria, dangerous mineral and oil extraction on the lands of indigenous peoples, deportation and opioid addiction in this country. It is tempting to turn our heads, close our hearts, numb our brains. But of the many things we learn from the Easter story there is this – if we want to see the risen Christ we cannot look away.

The disciples – Peter, Judas, James, John and the others, they fall asleep, they betray Jesus, they deny knowing him, they abandon him. Being a citizen of the country that dropped that bomb, makes me feel like Peter, part of the denial of Jesus, part of the betrayal of all goodness. But Peter and Judas are not the only disciples.

The women, Matthew tells us, the women stayed.  A group of women were present, looking on from a distance. These were the same women who had followed Jesus from Galilee as ministers to him. Among them were Mary of Magdala; Mary, the mother of James and Joseph; and the mother of Zebedees children. They watch as Jesus body is laid in the tomb and as the stone is rolled in front of the entrance. Joseph of Arimathea, who owns the tomb, goes home. But Mary of Magdala and the other Mary remain(ed) sitting there, facing the tomb. The Marys look at the tomb; they look at the rock. Their hearts are broken, their hopes are shattered. But, they do not look away.

At some point they go home for the Sabbath but they come back on Sunday morning. What are they hoping to see? What can they possibly see besides a boulder in front of a cave? In Matthew’s version of the story, the women do not bring spices with them, they do not come to anoint Jesus. They just come to see the tomb, to watch, to be present at this place of despair.

Suddenly there is an earthquake. In Matthew’s telling, this is the second earthquake, the first being when Jesus took his last breath and died.  Matthew writes that during that first earthquake The tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had died were raised. (They came out of the tombs after Jesus resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.) It is the strangest zombie moment; it is tempting to just mumble through it so you don’t have to think about it too much. But hear this: tombs were opened and the bodies of many saints who had died were raised. After Jesus resurrection, they came out of their tombs and entered the holy city, and appeared to many.

The second earthquake, the one on Sunday morning, heralds the arrival of an angel who rolls the stone away from the tomb – and then sits on it. The Marys arrive just in time to see the angel, as well as the fainting of the guard.

The angel tells the faithful women not to be afraid, that Jesus is risen. The women run, from fear or from joy we do not know but they run – right into Jesus. Jesus speaks to them: “Greetings! (or in some translations Shalom.) The women fall to their knees and hang on to Jesus’ feet to keep him firmly planted among the living, so he cannot leave them again.

But Jesus will not be held down. He sends the Marys away with the same message that the angel spoke: “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me. Go and tell.

This is in stark contrast to the religious leaders who are adamant that the word not get out. After Jesus is crucified and dies, the religious leaders go to Pilate’s house and say We recall that, while he was still alive, the impostor made the claim, After three days I will rise again. Therefore, please issue an order to keep the tomb under surveillance until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples might go and steal his body and tell the people, he has been raised from the dead! This final deception would be worse than the first.

These leaders can’t even say Jesus’ name, so eager are they to be rid of him. Pilate provides a guard for the tomb but this guard proves useless against the power of life; in fact when the angel appears the guards fall down as if they are dead. But the guards are not dead. They go and tell their fellow soldiers about the angel, about the disappearance of Jesus’ body. Then some of the guard go into the city and tell the chief priests everything that has happened. After the priests meet with the elders, they devise a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, You must say, His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.  If this comes to the governors ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble. So the soldiers take the money and do as they are directed.

Twice in three days, money changes hands to assure the death and erasure of Jesus. The religious leaders have lost their imagination. They are tempted by the belief that money will buy them the intangible: silence, control, peace of mind.

But the message the Marys carry cannot be contained, can not be suppressed. They “go and tell” the disciples who in turn tell more people. Even the soldiers, before they are bought off, speak the name aloud. And today we all say: Christ is risen. (Christ is risen indeed.)

This story has power because it is familiar in so many ways: the injustice, the bribery, the power plays; the denial, betrayal, abandonment; the waiting, the watching, the wondering. We want the resurrection to be true, we desperately need it to be true, we pray that it is true. But sometimes, these days, it feels like the tomb is huge, and the rock is even bigger. And the waiting so very long.

In the violent death of goodness like Michael J Sharp in Congo, or Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, or Brenda Lee McCool in Orlando, the tomb looms large and the rock seems immovable. We remember Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd and Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice and Malek Mercer; young, promising, life snuffed out. When we speak their names, we refuse to turn away, we refute their erasure. Those who hold power and money would buy our silence, distract us from the violence. But we say their names and we say Christ is risen. (Christ is risen indeed.)

Holding onto hope in the face of death is hard, especially when it is someone we know and love. Holding onto hope when there is violent death, day after day, across the street and around the world, is exhausting and mind numbing.

That is why we must not go to the tomb alone. Mary of Magdala and Mary the mother of James and Joseph went together to the tomb. We need each other when we are witness to death and destruction. The valley of the shadow of death is not a path to walk alone. Yes, the Good Shepherd is with us but we want someone in the flesh as well, someone with blood and bones that cries salty tears. The Marys are that for each other; the Marys give each other strength to go to the tomb, to not turn away, even when the other disciples run for safety, locking themselves away in fear and panic.

The Marys also go together to tell the news of Jesus’ resurrection. That may feel more risky than going to the tomb. At the tomb they know what they will find: death. It is not welcome but it is known. It is not desired but it is predictable. But finding life when you expect death? How is that even possible? We need a companion on the journey toward life.

Life from death, is not as instant as we see with Jesus. Even walking with a good friend like Mary it can take a while to experience life again, to see bright colors instead of variants of gray. It takes time to develop the yearning for flavor and smell once again. It takes time to recover the belief that there is truth in words and touch. Choosing life after a death is not a quick or simple process.  We need each other as make the choice to choose life.

The bodies of many saints who had died, who come out of their tombs after Jesus resurrection are still a mystery to me.  But I wonder about them and why they appear in Matthew’s story. We think of bodies that come out of tombs as creepy zombies and potentially dangerous. Matthew doesn’t seem to have the same understanding.

I wonder if these saints who had been dead but are now alive and present themselves in the holy city are a sign of reassurance for Matthew. There will be life, it may take a long, long time. It may look as if all is lost, yet life can emerge from the tombs. We know that when a seed falls into the ground and dies, new life can emerge. Matthew seems to say that even tombs contain potential. Even when death is old, there is the possibility that new life, new understanding can emerge in some strange, mysterious way.

This is not quite the fluffy, happy Easter I hope for. I want unfettered joy, a good egg casserole, the fragrance of hyacinths and lilies, and lots of Hallelujahs.  Instead we get encouragement to not turn away but practice looking at the tomb; we get encouragement to not remain silent but to speak the names of the dead; we get encouragement to not be alone but to take someone with us when encountering death – or life.

And we get assurance that while there is no simple fix, we do not face death – or life – alone. We are in the company of many of who have gone before and many who will come after. Life is stronger than death. Alleluia!

Christ is risen. (Christ is risen indeed.)