Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Resurrection of Our Lord [Year A] - April 20, 2014 (Matthew 28:1-10)

“With fear and great joy.”

That sounds like an odd combination of emotions to me, but, according to Matthew, that’s how the women leave Jesus’ empty tomb on the morning of that first Easter. He’s the only one of the four Gospel writers who records the women’s emotional state in this way, slipping it in there with all the drama and theater of the resurrection as if we wouldn’t notice. But we notice, and we think it sounds a little strange: “So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.” It sounds like such a contradiction, an oxymoron. Who feels fear and great joy at the same time? It seems like one would trump the other.

The fear, at least in part, is easy to understand, especially given all that’s going on in the background. First, there’s the earthquake—not all that strange given the part of the world this happens in, and according to Matthew, there had been one on the previous Friday on the afternoon of Jesus’ death. Maybe this is an aftershock, but frightening nonetheless. Then there is this angel—shining as if he were made of lightning—seen in the very act of rolling the giant stone away. We also learn right off the bat that the very people paid to be threatening, the very people hired to strike fear in the heart of anyone who would tamper with this crucified man’s tomb, were already so terrified they had apparently fainted. It must have been quite a fearsome scene, and when you add to it the general panic that occurs any time there is a missing body and that it was still dark because the sun wasn’t up—yeah, it’s not hard to imagine that even after they hear the perplexing news that the crucified man was actually risen that the women would still be a little afraid.

But then how does the joy fit in? And we’re not talking about just a small little seed of joy that may grow into something great, but full-blown great joy. By point of reference, there is only one other time in all of Matthew’s gospel when someone experiences “great joy.” It’s what the wise men experience when the star they are following finally stops over the place where they find Jesus. They’ve been traveling from the east for who knows how long and they are so excited that that they are finally going to get to see him. That’s what Mary Magdalene and the other Mary are feeling. Do they know they’re going to be seeing Jesus after their search, too?

The Two Marys watch the Tomb of Jesus
(James J. Tissot, 1884)
How then can these two feelings go together? As I pondered this question this week, I invited the homebound members I was visiting to reflect on that with me. Well, as it turns out, fear and great joy go together far more often than I had originally considered. More than one person I asked said that surgery often brought the same mix of emotions: fear about the procedure itself and the anesthesia and whether the recovery would be difficult—but great joy that a cataract could be removed or a broken hip could be fixed.

Together we also reflected on the feelings surrounding the birth of a child. Come to think of it…for sure, I was filled with great joy at the birth of my first child. I was overjoyed that the delivery had gone well, that both baby and mother were healthy, but when it dawned on me that they were actually at some point going to send us home with something I hadn’t the foggiest idea I could keep alive, I looked at the discharge nurse and thought to myself, “We really have to leave here with this thing, don’t we?” That was fear, my friends. Great joy mixed with lots of fear.

What about you? When was the last time you felt fear and great joy simultaneously, as illogical as it sounds? What about this morning? Do we still respond that way today as we greet this news of Easter? Upon closer inspection, there’s something very honest about these women’s reactions that gives great insight to the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection. Maybe a complete experience with this good news is a little akin to walking out of a hospital with a newborn baby, or undergoing a surgical procedure that gives you a new lease on life.

The great joy is probably the part we know we’re strong on. After all, we don’t have scary earthquakes or guards marching around this morning in intimidating fashion. Unless you’re afraid of people marching around with hand bells, you’re probably OK this morning. The hymns, the lilies, and the Scripture readings are all imbued with joy that the one who was crucified is now risen. God has conquered death. God’s new creation of life without sin has begun and, like that giant stone, will never be rolled back. Our joy is palpable—our long journey from the east is over—but what about the fear, especially if there are no earthquakes or strange, glowing angels to frighten us?

In short, it’s because we don’t have the foggiest idea how we’ll keep this alive, do we? At some point Easter moves away from the shock and excitement of the empty tomb to the reality of entering into the world, of carrying this new creation into a world that still thinks it can kill it. At some point—maybe even as quickly as Mary and Mary leave the scene of the resurrection—we realize the good news of God’s victory over sin and death compels us to live in the world quite differently than before. At some point our faith makes us move forward, seeing the possibilities of forgiveness, cherishing the power of love, and seizing the hope of a God who is alive in all circumstances, even the most desperate.

One pastor this week on his blog suggests that the fear surrounding our faith has less to do these days with our ability or inability to put love and hope into action than it does with how we feel we might be perceived by others. While we may feel joy and excitement about the hymns and music this morning, we are also afraid, he says, that believing in the things of Easter in today’s world will cost us too much and make us seem, “laughable, simple-minded, shallow, foolish, absurdly unmodern.”[1] Dressing up and coming to worship to hear the hand bells, the forgiveness of sins and the triumph over death is one thing, declaring to the world that God has saved its life and that recovery is going to be OK is another thing altogether.

That is frightening. It is frightening even as it is exhilarating, because there is no guarantee that others will immediately recognize our new life since it is, as the writer to the Colossians says, hidden with Christ in God.

Thankfully, though, Jesus is risen, which means he is still alive and active on the road of re-entry and will greet us there, encouraging us on our way. Just as soon as the women leave the tomb, they bump into Jesus himself, even before they’ve returned to Galilee. That is, they are comforted by Jesus’ presence as they depart even before they are told they can expect it. Do you harbor some fear about what the news of this day means, fear about how you might tell others and how you’ll be received? Then remember that the risen Christ himself is apt to surprise you, maybe even before you’ve left the parking on the way out, and certainly before you have the chance to speak about it to anyone.

Just a few weeks ago we received a solicitation phone call in the church office. We receive a half-dozen or so each week. This one was offering us some kind of help—it wasn’t really clear—in getting our new business moving. “New business moving.” I know that’s what they said. Best I could figure they had received some kind of notification through internet data that there’d been a recent change here at our congregation and I guess they mistakenly recognized me as the leader of some new venture. While the move between offices definitely took a little longer than we had hoped—embarrassingly so—I never thought someone would actually call me about it. So I assured them, nope…no new business here, no new move anyone needs to worry about.

Think again, pastor. Think again. The scary and joyful news of Easter suggests otherwise. This gathering—this pronouncement—is always a new movement, a venture that the all of creation is waiting on, a surprising move that saves us all. Jesus will surprise us on the road. As Mary and the other Mary show us, discharge nurses of the resurrection…Yes, we really do have to leave here with this thing, don’t we!


Alleluia! Christ is Risen!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion - April 13, 2014 ("Cry of the Whole Congregtion")

There was a point in college where I hit a wall in my studying. No matter how hard I tried, sitting at my desk or in the library, the equations and problems and the information we were supposed to memorize and solve were just too much for my brain. Others could take their class notes or their textbooks and somehow internalize all this stuff in some way that made it make sense to them. It didn’t work that way for me for some reason.

Thanks to a friend in the engineering school, I heard about this one classroom where all four walls were huge blackboards—those old-fashioned slate blackboards that professors don’t use anymore. On one night near the end of each semester, I would get into that room when it was vacant and take a piece of chalk and slowly write out the systems and processes my biochemistry professor had asked us to learn. Starting in the top left hand corner, with large, visible handwriting, I would slowly make my way around the room. It would take a while to get each system or process written out, but once it was done, I would go sit at a desk in the middle of the room and let myself be surrounded by the Kreb’s Cycle…or photosynthesis. I’d just look at it for a while and see how it all fit together. Others could take it apart on their index cards and notebook pages; I discovered I needed to see it writ large, in one big sweeping arc.

Jesus enters Jerusalem
Every year that’s what the church does with Holy Week. Every year, that’s what this congregation (and countless others) do on Palm Sunday, or the Sunday of the Passion. We let ourselves be surrounded by the story. We lay the whole process out there, in one sweeping arc—all the pieces of Jesus’ last semester put together so that we can see them as a whole. It starts with his spectacular entry into Jerusalem up there in the left hand corner, people waving palms and smiling, and then flows from there—the Last Supper in the Upper Room, the anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane, the betrayal of Judas, the denials of Peter, and the trial before Pilate. As we move along we get the sentencing and then eventually the crucifixion and the soldiers casting lots for his clothing, Jesus’ final words and then his lifeless body taken off the cross. The rest of the year we get Jesus’ life on little index cards, each Sunday a small snippet that points, in some way, to the cross at the end. This week, however, we get to put it all together, see their undeniable connections, and arrive at their irrefutable result: Jesus comes to die.

The Last Supper (Coptic icon)
Yes, that’s the final solution to this giant process before us, the conclusion we must wrestle with for as long as we’re alive: Jesus comes to die. When we’re presented with the index cards of him—at Christmas, or at Epiphany, or when he tells his remarkable parables and preaches his confusing sermons—it’s easy to miss that fact. Jesus can give a lot of wisdom, and he can offer a lot of thoughts to ponder in times of worry or regret, and all of that is good and helpful.

However, seeing the events of Holy Week spread out all around us forces us to come to terms with what always happens when God’s love in Jesus Christ encounters the world on the world’s terms. When the world’s terms are involved, Jesus is going to die. When the world’s reality is taken into consideration, this is what’s it’s going to come to. And, despite all the pain and anguish it will cause Jesus, God isn’t going to encounter us in any other way than on the world’s terms because that’s where we are. This is where we live, enmeshed and intertwined with all the world’s evil and sin and brokenness. Jesus is the one who bears the brunt of this encounter, and Christians from the very beginning of our faith have gathered at this time of year to put this all together and hear it so that we don’t forget it.

He will not save humanity simply by dispensing wisdom or giving us inspirational stories to live by. Jesus will heal the world and begin to put it back together by submitting to its brokenness on our behalf. He will take the world seriously, which means he will enter into the darkest pain and isolation. But he will also do this by giving up any desire to defend himself or to use force in a way that would hurt anyone.

The Betrayal of Judas (Duccio)
If you stand back at this and still don’t quite understand, fear not: Jesus’ path has always been a very difficult conclusion to grasp, so don’t feel bad if it still leaves you speechless at some point. One 19th century theologian who wrote pages and pages of articles and sermons about God and faith would still contemplate the sum of Jesus’ life by saying simply, as if his hands were thrown up in the air in surrender: “A God on the cross! That is all my theology.”[1]

But there’s something strange about this horrifying conclusion that you’ve probably already suspected. As this story is playing out for us today—and as it plays out for us later in the week on Maundy Thursday and on Good Friday—at some point we make the connection that we’re not really in the middle of some classroom, or in the middle of some sanctuary, letting it play out around us. We are not simply passive observers of the process, students who are cramming at the last minute and hoping that it all sinks in. The something strange involves you and it involves me. In reality, we’re in the equation. We’re part of the cycle, that system that leads to his demise. We are not innocently sitting back and taking it all in.

No, in fact, somewhere up on that giant chalkboard that contains the world’s sin, our names are squeezed in. We are there, in all our brokenness and orneriness, another part of the world’s terms that Jesus comes to address and to heal. And the death of Jesus? Well, we have somehow helped move it along to its inevitable conclusion, too.

Ecce Homo (Antonio Ciseri, 19th c.)
In this morning’s rendition of the final days of Jesus, you will be an undeniable part of the equation. Specifically, you will be lending your voices to this scene as the people in the crowd, as one of that horde that do nothing to stop the process and turn it around. But there are times we may appear throughout our lives as someone with one of these more prominent roles. Like Peter, we may deny our relationship to the Lord, especially when put on the spot. Or like Judas, we take the path of greed and false security rather than faithfulness to God. Or like Pilate, we shrug our shoulders and wash our hands rather than make any real decision about God and truth, and in so doing make a decision to align ourselves with the powers of the world that try to kill and silence goodness. Or maybe we’re one of the disciples who are asked simply to pray, but end up just falling asleep on the job.

Whatever role it ends up being, we’re in there somewhere. We’re up on that chalkboard, and we’re helping God reach that conclusion that only humility and love can save us all, even if it means death on a cross.

It will be important for us to remember and realize all of this, but let us also keep in mind something else. As it turns out, when our sinfulness and brokenness have had its way with Jesus, when once more we listen to the whole story with Peter and Judas and Pilate all playing their parts, there will still be one last section of blackboard with nothing on it. There will be one final result, one conclusion which, on our own, we’d never be able to figure out because as far as we can figure, our sin always ends in Jesus’ death. But there is one more blank section of blackboard God is saving for the end. And it’s a doozy. It’s a surprising, amazing doozy that will save it all, make it all make sense…make it all glorious. That little part of the blackboard won’t be filled in until, oh, until sometime next week.

May I suggest you come back?

You’ll have to see it to believe it.

Crucifixion (Georges Rouault, 1937)

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Jean Lacordaire