William Willimon was preaching in a little church in Alaska when an earthquake hit. “The earth heaved for a moment that seemed forever,” he wrote. “The little church shook. But the Alaskan Methodists sat there like it was another day at the office. Their only response was the woman who said, ‘How about that, the light fixtures didn’t fall this time.’”
Willimon ended his sermon immediately. He was shaken by the earthquake, but also a bit shaken by those nonchalant Alaskans. Afterwards, he asked the pastor, “What the heck would it take to get this congregation’s attention? I’d hate to have to preach to them every Sunday.”
Easter is like an earthquake, only we have been through the routine so many times, we have grown kind of nonchalant about it. The surprise and the joy isn’t quite so strong when you’ve been through it time and again. But what must it have been like that first Easter morning!
Jesus had entered Jerusalem to palm branches and shouts of hosanna. But it wasn’t long before he was throwing the money changers out of the temple, and it went downhill from there. After sharing the Passover meal with his disciples, Jesus was betrayed and arrested. And on Friday, he was crucified. On Sunday, Jesus was hailed as the great hope of the nation, and by Friday he is dead.
Everything had gone so badly so quickly. His followers were stunned, just numb with grief.
As Matthew reports it, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the tomb. “The other Mary” is apparently Jesus’ mother, who is mentioned in the previous chapter. The women do not have an agenda. They are just going to the tomb, which makes perfect sense. We may go to the cemetery after the funeral of a loved one. The women went to remember and grieve.
But they did not find what they expected. When they arrive at the tomb, there is an earthquake – the kind that really gets your attention - and an angel descends from heaven. An earthquake and descending angels. The angel rolls back the stone from the entrance to the tomb and sits on it. Guards posted at the tomb are so terrified that they pass out like dead men. And the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid.” And then the news: Jesus is not here; he has been raised from the dead. Stunning, unfathomable news. Jesus was alive!
We are told that the reaction of the women to the news that Jesus was alive was fear and joy. Fear and joy. They are an unlikely pair.
Cardinal and gold – they go together. Winter and potholes. Spring and daffodils. College and ramen noodles. They all go together. But fear and joy? As it turns out, we have all have had the experience of simultaneously feeling joy and fear, in both large ways and small ways.
You’ve saved and scrimped and looked forward to the day when you could buy your own home, and now the day has come. You make an offer, and it is accepted. And then it hits you that you have committed to paying an incredible sum of money over the next three decades, and so you feel both excitement and joy at owning this home as well as this feeling of “what have we done?”
You have looked forward so much to the birth of a child. And seeing this tiny baby, you feel such incredible love and joy and thankfulness. But at the same time, as you think of the challenges of parenthood, there is fear mixed in - a sense of the awesome responsibility you now have.
You are off to college for the first time. It is exciting. It feels like freedom. It’s a new chapter in your life. But it is also scary. You are not sure what to expect and your roommate is a bit – well, questionable. There is both joy and fear. For parents whose child has gone off to college, there is fear and joy as well.
Joy mixed with fear is actually common. What the two Marys experienced, however, went far beyond this.
An earthquake and an angel will elicit fear every time. But what is really frightening is to have your understanding of reality challenged, and that is exactly what happened on Easter morning. What really provokes fear is a sense that things are out of control and that the world is not the way we had thought it was.
As they ran to tell the others, suddenly, Jesus is there with them. He speaks to them. They took hold of him and worshiped.
There was fear, and then there was joy. If the guards became like dead men, Mary and Mary, who had felt dead before, suddenly became fully alive.
The resurrection challenges us with the notion that God is at work in ways that we cannot see or even imagine. There is a reality beyond the logic and analysis of our minds, and God is not limited by our understanding or experience.
The resurrection is the heart of the Christian gospel. It is reason for great, soaring joy, and it can also scare the living daylights out of us, because it means that we thought we had the world all figured out, and maybe we don’t.
The resurrection inspires both joy and fear, but we have had mixed feelings about Jesus all along, if we are honest.
- We really like a Jesus who taught about love, but not so much a Lord who commands us to love our enemies.
- We really like a Jesus who helped the unfortunate, but not so much a Lord who challenges us to sell what we own and give the money to the poor.
- We really like a Jesus who threw the moneychangers out of the temple, but not so much a Lord who calls us to reform our practices of worship.
- We really like a Jesus who includes everybody, who was a friend of tax collectors and sinners, but not so much a Lord who encourages us to embrace people we feel are beneath us.
- We really like a Jesus who accepted people as his disciples, but not so much a Lord who challenges us to take up our own cross, to lose our lives for his sake, and to find new life through sacrifice.
We can get used to going through the motions. We can get used to a kind of ho-hum existence. We can easily make what we think are the safe and usual and conventional choices, even if we don’t find a lot of joy in it. We just tell ourselves that is the way things are, and it to do something different just seems too much trouble, or too uncertain, or too scary.
It can be hard to live by faith when what most of us know, what most of us are taught in so many ways, what most of us are programmed for, is to live otherwise.
The poet Mary Oliver, who died in January, wrote, “Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.” I love that. And that is the heart of the message of Easter: “keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.”
Kim Fabricius told about going to a meeting at a university where someone spoke on “The Resurrection of Jesus.” The talk was brilliant. All of the arguments against the resurrection – that Jesus hadn’t really died, that the disciples stole the body, that it was all either a hoax or a hallucination – all of these the speaker roundly refuted. And then he presented evidence in favor of the resurrection. The witness of the disciples and especially the women (nobody would invent the testimony of women in first-century Israel); the conversion of the persecutor Saul into the apostle Paul; the birth of the church, believers willing to die for their faith – marshalling all this evidence, the speaker claimed to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that Jesus rose from the dead.
The audience was impressed, but somehow this all left Fabricius kind of cold. The main reason the talk fell flat for him was that it was as if the speaker had it all figured out. He had all the answers to what came across as a kind of algebra problem, an academic game and it made it sound as though the resurrection of Jesus were easy.
Fear and joy. While the speaker was short on joy, he had completely left out the fear. There was no sense of mystery about it, which to this man who attended the talk made it feel like there was no sense of God in it.
The fact is, resurrection is not easy at all. It’s existentially disturbing. It’s threatening. It’s explosive.
Of course, this speaker did what we are all tempted to do – to make God manageable, to have it all explained and figured out. Now certainly, our faith is worth examining in a rigorous way. But the way the gospels present the resurrection, each a bit differently, leaves things kind of messy. And it is interesting that none of the gospels are trying to prove the resurrection; they are simply reporting, and inviting us to experience the mystery of God and the joy of new life as well as the fear and messiness of following Jesus for ourselves.
New life is unpredictable. It can mess up our reality. That can be scary, but at the same time this is good news, because there is a lot of reality that needs to be messed with. There is a lot in this world that needs some shaking up.
Last Monday, I was between running errands and doing projects. I came inside for a minute and Susan said that there was a fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral. Wow, I thought, and I went on with whatever I was doing. But a little later I sat down in the front of the TV, and this time it was, WOW. We watched the video of the spire falling. We saw the roof consumed by flames and collapsing and all of the people watching in shocked horror. The building had stood for 850 years, and it looked like it might be completely destroyed.
But then came morning. After firefighters labored for nine hours, the fire was out. The nave of the church was open to the sky. There was a huge pile of timbers and debris and ash across the floor in front of the altar. But amazingly, the altar still stood, and there was a gleaming cross that had escaped damage. You have probably seen the photograph. In the midst of all of this destruction, there was the cross.
It was almost as if to say, this has been a dark, terrible day, but God is still here. And coming in Holy Week, this somehow told the story of our faith. Hurt, pain, loss, grief will come. But God is there through it all, God is with us through it all, and there will be life on the other side of that pain. Life beyond our imagining.
I was reminded too of other places of worship that have burned. In Louisiana, three African-American churches in Landry Parish were destroyed in fires set by an arsonist. Those churches have had to endure not only the loss of their place of worship but the hatred expressed by those church burnings. The outpouring of support for the Cathedral in Paris prompted an outpouring of support by Americans to rebuild those Louisiana churches.
For the cathedral in Paris, for those churches in Louisiana – not just buildings, but flesh and blood people - and for all of us, the message of Easter is that beyond the pain, on the other side of loss, there is hope and there is new life.
If there is anything we share in common, it is loss. There are broken relationships and dashed hopes and shattered dreams. We lose those whom we love; for some here this morning the grief is fresh and raw. In one way or another, we all have to face loss, and if we are not careful, death can have a grip on us long before our bodies die.
But Easter tells us that there is resurrection. There is new life, not just awaiting us in the future, but here and now. Easter tells us that the power of God is greater than the power of death, greater than all the losses we suffer in this life. And while Easter elicits both fear and great joy, in the end the power and grace and love of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, is greater than all our fears.
I noticed an interesting news item on Friday. Researchers at Cal Tech and UC-San Diego found that between 2008 and 2017, Southern California was hit by an average of 495 earthquakes a day, or roughly one every three minutes. This is about 10 times more than previously thought.
“It’s not that we didn’t know these earthquakes were occurring,” said Zachary Ross, lead author of the study. “The problem is that they can be very difficult to spot amid all of the noise.”
For the women who went to the tomb, the women who became the very first preachers of the gospel, the first to proclaim that Jesus had risen from the dead, Easter came with an earthquake. And the thing is, Easter keeps happening. New life keeps bursting forth in places where we don’t expect it, those Easter earthquakes keep happening, at least every three minutes, but sometimes it can be difficult to spot amid all the noise.
This morning, the announcement comes not just to the women at the tomb, it comes to us. Do not be afraid. Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead. The power of God is greater than any of the losses we suffer, greater even than death. Ester earthquakes are all around. So “keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.” Amen.