Forming character through the insights of literature, contemporary culture and Scripture.
Image from Visual Homilies by Eldon Heinrichs
by Cal Wiebe
It was only forty days ago that I said, “Hello Lent”. Remember all the things we were going to give up for Lent? I joked that we would have to give up chocolate and wine and TV — and then the pandemic happened.
It’s remarkable what we’ve actually had to give up. We’ve had to give up being together. Other than our housemates, we can’t stand closer than 6 feet from anyone. We’re all looking for hand sanitizers and masks. Those of you who are still working are lucky but some have had to give up our jobs. We are encouraged to wear masks in some places like grocery stores. Most sporting events are gone. Everything is different. As we’re practicing social distancing, we barely get out of the house. I dropped off some flowers for Brenna the other day, and she said it was so good just to see someone outside of her normal circle! It really feels weird. There’s a sense of a low-grade dread and anxiety in all of us.
These things are all on the surface but underlying all of this is COVID-19. We worry about getting it or getting someone else sick, and in the worst case we worry whether it will kill us or someone we love. How do we speak about Easter in this context? It feels more like a continued Good Friday.
But as I looked at today’s text I realized it’s actually the perfect Easter setting! They went through an earthquake. And what the world is going through now is also an earthquake because everything is upside down. At the last place Brock and I worked, the homeowner met us at the door six feet away every day. Actually it was more like nine feet away because he was very cautious. He’s a retired stockbroker and every day he would yell, “The markets! The markets are down!” We could feel his fear.
We are all touched by that same kind of fear. Existentially we are in the same place as the women and the disciples. Their mentor and master had just died and they weren’t quite sure what to do or what was going to happen next. So, even though it’s not a comfortable time for us, I think it’s a good time for Easter.
Recently, a historian said we have the opportunity to have the most authentic Easter because on the first Easter the disciples were in hiding, self isolating and living in fear, just like we are.
This pandemic makes us think about the meaning of Easter in a different way. When we we’re physically all together with food and flowers, there’s a good sense of community and fellowship, and it’s almost like those consolations can carry the day. But that’s actually not the meaning of Easter.
This morning I’m going to share with you what I have needed to hear to get through this pandemic. So you’re going to overhear my inner conversation. I’ve called the sermon “Living Through the Earthquake”, and if it were a scholarly paper, the subtitle would be: “Practices That Help Us Be Open to the Resurrection”.
In particular, I want to talk about the women because in all the Gospels they’re the first ones to show up. In a sense they are the apostles to the apostles. I want to look at the feminine qualities the women had that helped them be open to the idea of resurrection. (This is not to say that all women are good and all men are bad. We all have both masculine and feminine characteristics in us.)
After we come with expectancy that God will show up in our days, as the women did, we need to be open to the revelation we receive.
Again we see the two different responses between the men and women. The women hear the angel and respond with joy. The men - in this case the soldiers - get scared. The Scripture says they become “as deadman.”
It’s interesting how there’s always two ways of dealing with revelations when we get them. We can be open and accepting of the new reality, or we can crush it down and say that our plausibility structures won’t allow the idea in.
One block many of us have is our modern consciousness. Since the 17th century Enlightenment, we moderns find it hard to believe in the supernatural; especially in the 21st century. Our modern consciousness only understands things that have happened before in history. An event that has no analogy, such as Christ’s resurrection, can not be understood in historical terms. We think, if it hasn’t happened before, it’s not going to happen now, and of course, coming back from the dead is unprecedented. That has never happened to anyone before.
But the women in our text seem to be able to take that experience and run with it. Literally. They flee the tomb and run to tell the men. The guards, however, do something different with it. They run to the high priest and come up with a different narrative of what just happened — they decide to tell everyone that the disciples stole the body.
When new life happens in our world, it seems there will always be power structures that want to crush it. This temptation happens in our own psyches too when new life breaks into our lives and we resist it. We all have habits and ways of thinking that we want to hold onto even if they don’t serve us well. The resurrection sometimes threatens us because we’re challenged to give up our old ways of seeing things.
Every year, I always sign up to do the Easter sermon, and I think it’s my way of dealing with my fear of death. For whatever reason, since I was young, I’ve always been afraid of dying. When I was six and getting my tonsils out in the hospital, they were rolling me on the gurney and I was looking at the fluorescent lights thinking, “I’m going to die!“ Or, when I was eight and going camping, I thought a bear was going to get me. As an adult, the guys who work with me know that I end up talking about dying all the time. “If you find me on the side and I’ve had a stroke, call the ambulance!“ Me being afraid of dying has been a constant thing, and when I’m in this mindset, the resurrection just doesn’t make any sense.
But as I mused on the text along with Moltmann’s chapter, I thought, “Maybe I’m wrong!” Just because I have that feeling doesn’t make it right. The resurrection is a confronting event. It challenges our patterns of thinking that things will never change, or that we’re going to be like this forever. I became open to the possibility that the resurrection was right. Maybe I didn’t have to fear the resurrection as much as I do.
At first, I heard “Do not be afraid“ as something I had to will myself into and white-knuckle it and read and pray, but I realized that was ridiculous. I can’t command myself not to be afraid. In fact, that's a kind of a masculine modality, saying, “There’s a problem and I’m going to power through it.”
Maybe “Do not be afraid” is more like an invitation. Both the angels and Jesus offer the two Mary’s this invitation into the resurrection life. It’s like, Jesus has got this. He’s saying that he’s not dead anymore so you don’t have to be afraid of death because God conquered it.
I love the image in Matthew of Jesus sitting on a rock, as if he rolled it away from the tomb and sat down. It’s like he’s saying, “Death, you’re not the boss of me.” God is stronger than death. That for me was the confronting event of Easter — me thinking I was right, and realizing that I might be wrong.
I think that’s how we get threatened by Resurrection. At first I could not experience it in my heart because I was still afraid of death. How is the resurrection true if I’m still so scared? Then I realized, I have to open myself up to that reality. I think that’s all God asks from us. He doesn’t say we have to be above our struggles or our fear amid the pandemic. We don’t have to be above our fear of death. We just have to allow ourselves to be invited to consider Jesus when he says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” When the angel tells us not to be afraid, it’s like he is inviting us into the resurrection world. Moltmann wrote:
“Believing in the resurrection does not just mean assenting to a dogma and noting a historical fact. It means participating in this creative act of God’s. If it were merely a historical circumstance, we should simply say: ‘Oh really?’, register the fact, and go on living as we did before. But if it is a creative act of God’s, then - if we really know and understand what it is about - we shall be born again to a new life. A faith like this is the beginning of freedom. So to talk about the resurrection, we have to talk about a process of resurrection.”
I like that quote because when we have a problem we often think we should be over it. There’s no process. But we’ve lived with this historical mindset for as long as we’ve been alive, thinking things will go like this. Sometimes we barrier ourselves to that sense of eternity where the resurrection comes from.
After showing up with expectancy, they respond authentically to the message from the angel. The angel says, “Do not be afraid, Jesus will go before you to Galilee. You can go meet him there.” Whether we show up expectantly or not, we meet this confronting idea of the resurrection which blows our mind. We will resist a change of mind. The only thing that makes us change is when everything we try just keeps on not working.
With this pandemic, they say there’s a huge potential for humankind to change. Who knows if we will. It will be either through great joy or great pain that we will get rid of our old ideas and ways. What we’re being confronted with at this moment in history is a chance to change and become more like Christ and the kingdom which would be more justice for more people. That is, if we are open to showing up and having our paradigms changed by the in-breaking of the Spirit.
In the text, the women respond authentically. They run to tell the others and who shows up but Jesus. They worship him. He gives them the assurance that they will meet him in Galilee. Not in Jerusalem, but outside the power structures of the religious system, in their ordinary everyday life.
I wondered how the women would have felt about asking the men back into their fellowship. The guys had betrayed Jesus; they had all been fickle and run away. Would the women be feeling like they couldn’t trust the guys anymore?
Implicit in this is that on our journey we are going to have to forgive each other, because we don’t always have faith. It isn’t just the men but also the women. What we have is a sense that Jesus is always going to be with us. At the end of Matthew, Jesus tells them, “Lo I am with you always even until the ends of the earth.“ There’s always a sense that Jesus will be talking. Life will always be ambiguous. Sometimes will have faith and sometimes not. At the end of our chapter it says, “Some worshipped him, and some doubted.” I just love that ambiguity because it’s like us! In this Easter service, some may worship and some may doubt. Our doubt doesn’t have to be something we crush down in ourselves. As long as we are with the group, someone will be a witness to the resurrection. And that is how community is a saving grace for us because Jesus shows up in different places. And when we’re receptive, we might just notice him.
The reason we don’t have to be afraid is because Jesus is going to be with us. When I began my homily I thought, wouldn’t it be great if Jesus could walk out of the pages of scripture and be with us. And then I realized, he has! Jesus has met all of us in whatever circumstances we’ve been in. Sometimes our historical consciousness has dulled us to the fact that he has been around. It’s good to be reminded in times like these that Christ walks among us. We don’t have to take that historical paradigm so seriously that we resist these in-breakings of the Spirit.
Sometimes it’s you that has faith and sometimes it’s someone else who has faith. So we don’t have to worry about who has faith today. Just keep showing up, because God wants to bring about this new kingdom more than we do. God will be faithful to the process. He was faithful to the process when Jesus died and was resurrected. He’s faithful to us by sending the Spirit which Moltmann and Paul the apostle talks about as the power of resurrection.
So do not be afraid. Jesus is going to be with you in the future no matter what that is.
Easter flowers delivered to the different Watershed homes. Photo by Mel Bernadsky.