Message from Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018
This is the first time in some 60 years that Easter has fallen on April Fool’s Day. Easter moves around the calendar, unlike other holidays that are on set days. By ancient tradition of the church, the date of Easter is always the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. The equinox is always March 21, and this year, the full moon was yesterday, so here we are.
I don’t know if you have seen the moon the last two nights. It’s been brilliant — big and round and bright. And the timing has been just right, too, so that if you’re up early, you can see moon setting just as the sun rises.
We don’t have any record of what the moon was doing on the morning of the first day of the week when the women went to the tomb, and April Fools’ Day wasn’t a tradition until much later… but the way this date falls is kind of perfect, because surely the women must have thought there was some kind of prank when they arrived and found the tomb empty.
The shock and surprise is lost on us who have heard this story before and know how it ends, those of us who know what they will find there when they get to the tomb early in the morning on the first day of the week.
Matthew’s gospel is actually the most dramatic of the scenes at the tomb. The other gospels have the women arrive to anoint the body and the stone has already been rolled away, but Matthew tells us that just as Mary Magdalene and the other Mary get there there’s a huge earthquake.
The ground shakes, and an angel appears and rolls back the stone right in front of them, and then sits on top of it.
You might remember that there’s an earthquake when Jesus dies, too, in Matthew’s gospel, just a few verses before this; Jesus breathes his last breath and the ground shakes.
Then the ground shakes again when the Marys get to the tomb and the angel appears. We who have heard this story before and know how it ends might miss just how dramatic this is.
Look at what happens to the guards who were there watching the tomb: the earth shakes, and the angel appears, and they are terrified and they fall over as if they’re dead.
These guards, by the way, were sent to guard the tomb by Pilate, who had ordered the crucifixion, and who had heard the rumors that death might not be the end of the story and puts the full force of the the imperial military on the job of making sure Jesus stays dead. Those guards represent the last gasp of an empire built on strength and power, who naively think that God can be held back by a large stone and plenty of manpower.
But Pilate did not know what we know, which is that death is not the end of the story, that the power of God cannot be contained, no matter how strong the guards are or how big the stone is.
The power of God cannot be contained by
The strength of the empire
Or the pain of the cross
Or the walls of death.
The guards do not know this yet either, so when the ground shakes and the angel appears, they fall over as if they are dead.
They are not dead, though, and I wonder – because we never hear from them again – I wonder if even in their death-like state, they hear what happens next, they hear what the angel says to the women.
Did you hear what the angel said to the women?
“Do not be afraid.”
This should not surprise us, either, because this is what angels always say when they show up with big news: Do not be afraid, the angel says, come and see the empty tomb, then go and tell the others that he’ll meet you back in Galilee.
Do not be afraid — then go.
So the women leave the tomb, Matthew tells us, with “fear and great joy” after they see the angel and they run to tell the disciples and that’s when they run into Jesus who they are not at all expecting to see.
He says to them – actually it’s hard to translate what he says first. Usually in English it’s translated, “Greetings” but it’s actually closer to a combination of “hello” and “rejoice.” Do we have an English word that means Hello and Rejoice?
I don’t know, but that’s what he says to them, hello and rejoice, and they fall down at his feet and then he says:
Do not be afraid.
Jesus says to them: do not be afraid.
Which is exactly what the angel said to them a few minutes before.
And I would suggest that if an angel and Jesus tell you the exact same thing on the same morning, it’s worth paying attention to.
They leave the tomb after they’ve seen the angel and they run with “fear and great joy” but they run into Jesus who says:
Do not be afraid.
Now, to be clear: “Do not be afraid,” is not the same thing as “There is nothing to be afraid of.”
For Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, there is plenty to be afraid of: There is an empty tomb with no body, and two guards stunned and fallen on the ground, and there was a loud earthquake, and surely the empire’s army will notice sooner or later that something is going on, and the movement they’ve been part of is now in trouble and there’s uncertainty about what comes next….
There is plenty to be afraid of.
You know this, too. Life is full of reasons to be afraid:
And there’s danger
There are car accidents
And chronic pain
There are job layoffs
And interrupted plans
There is disease
There are broken relationships
And there is injustice we can’t reconcile
And violence we have no control of
And complicated politics we can’t agree on
And the distance between life and death isn’t very far
And despair comes easily
There is plenty to be afraid of.
But that isn’t what the angel says.
That isn’t what Jesus says.
They say: Do not be afraid.
The women leave the tomb with fear and great joy.
And if you have fear and great joy and you leave fear behind…
You have only joy.
And what does life look like then?
On this Easter morning, what would your life look like if you left fear behind and lived with joy?
Would you notice the sunrise or the setting of the moon?
Would you say yes a little more often? Or no a little more often?
Would you make that phone call to the friend who hurt your feelings or the brother you haven’t talked to in years – even if you really think he should call you first?
Would you say you’re sorry?
Would you speak a little more kindly?
Would you argue less? Or laugh more?
Would you spend less time worrying and more time caring about somebody?
Would you treat the planet little more gently?
Would you treat yourself a little more gently?
Would you take that risk and do the thing you’ve always been afraid to do because it just seems a little too scary?
What would life look like if you left fear behind and lived only with joy?
There’s more to the story, of course; the story of Jesus doesn’t end on the cross and the story of the women doesn’t end at the graveyard gate. Both the angel and Jesus say “do not be afraid” but they also say, “Go.”
Go and tell the disciples.|
Go back to Galilee.
Go back to what you were doing before.
Go back to your lives.
Because, of course, Galilee, is where Jesus had been doing what Jesus does: teaching and caring and serving and healing and welcoming and bringing people in…
Go back to that, Jesus says to the women, and to us. Leave the fear behind and go do that.
On Friday morning a couple of days ago, I got here to the church pretty early. The parking lot was empty, and they sky was heavy and gray and threatening rain — perfect for a Good Friday morning. As I was walking into the church, I happened to look up just as a bird flew past the top of that big tree out in the front yard, the dark bird silhouetted against the gray sky.
And just as it flew past the very top of the tree, it paused, mid-flight, for just a moment, and flapped its wings once. I assume that there was a gust of wind that came up just then that pushed the bird back a bit, that she had to gather up some extra energy to keep flying forward…
But the effect was that she seemed to be having second thoughts about where she was headed. Like maybe she was wondering if this was really the right direction, or if she had the strength to make it, that going on might just be too hard, or if maybe she ought to just give up and head back down, out of the clear air of the sky, and get her feet firmly planted on steady ground.
But then, after what was really only a split second of hesitation, she seemed to dig deep into somewhere in her little bird soul — birds are made for flying, of course, not for planting their feet on the earth — and with head down and wings up, she pushed past the gust of wind and made her way across the sky.
Sometimes Easter is simply about finding the courage to head back into your life
To do the work you are called to do
To be who you are called to be
Easter is about
leaving the fear behind
Heading back into our lives with only the joy
Into our lives in this crazy messy world where there is plenty to be afraid of
To do the work of Jesus
The caring and the healing and the teaching and the welcoming and the bringing people in…
Friends: this good news we proclaim today
These alleluias we sing today
This story we tell today…
It is not foolishness. It is the power of God.
Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed.