I Feel the Earth Move

Matthew 28:11-20
April 16, 2017
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

That first Easter when God raised Jesus from the dead, the day did not dawn quietly. It began instead with a great shaking and shifting as everything everyone thought they knew about the world was suddenly wrenched from beneath their feet.

The women were the first to feel it. They had come to the tomb early while it was still dark to mourn the death of their teacher and friend and to share their tears over the end of their dreams. The disciples were not there, having scattered to nurse their wounded hearts and their guilty souls somewhere alone, but the women had stayed together over the past two nights to comfort one another. They grieved not only the loss of their friend and teacher, Jesus, but also the loss of a hope for a different kind of life. Over the years, Jesus had made the women feel valued in a society that so often took them for granted and treated them as little more than property. Like the sick and the lame that Jesus healed in the villages, like the children he refused to shoo away, like the beggars and even the thieves shunned by most but treated with such decent kindness by Jesus, the women had for the first time felt that in Jesus they had someone who listened to them, cared for them, and most surprising of all, someone who believed that they had an important role to play in God’s work. In the eyes of Rome, it was a motley crew that strode into Jerusalem behind Jesus just a few days ago, but his ragmuffin followers stood tall as they walked, shouting their Hosannas with confident expectation because they had come to believe that with Jesus, anything was possible for them.

But then the authorities nailed those hopes to a cross. The ruling powers wanted nothing to do with this new kind of society that Jesus proclaimed, where the prostitutes and tax collectors would sit at the head of the table, where the hungry would be fed and the stranger welcomed, where beggars and slaves and women would have a voice. The chief priests and Herod’s men and the Roman officials declared that Jesus was not in charge of deciding what the world would look like: they were. They would decide what was normal — and who was normal — and it was certainly not going to be those that tagged along after Jesus. So the authorities moved quickly to crush this Jesus movement and sweep its leader out of the city with the rest of the trash so that they could return to their neatly ordered predictable worlds — the Chief Priests to the rhythms of the Temple liturgy, Herod’s men to their discourses on the state of politics, and the Roman officials to the bureaucratic machine managing the Empire. They were the important people — the rich, the politically powerful, the educated, the well-born — and the world belonged to them. “Normal” would be whatever and whoever they declared normal to be.

And so the women retreated from their hope of a world where they had a seat at the table, retreated back into the shadows, and comforted one another in their despair. They mourned, and wept, and keened their anger, and prayed to understand, and on the third day, empty of words and numb with grief, they decided to look death in the face.

“Let us go to his tomb,” the women said to one another, “to honor and remember him. For a short time, Jesus gave us a better life and for that, at least, we can be thankful even in our grief.” In the dark of the waning night, they walked together to sit at the tomb where they believed their dreams had died.

But as the women approached the place where Jesus’ lay, suddenly the sun broke over the horizon and the dawn did not break quietly. As the light pierced the sky, the ground beneath their feet began to shake and heave. Thunder crashed overhead, and like a stroke of lightening from the heavens, an angel descended to the tomb. With a great shove, he rolled the rock away from the entrance, and perched there, smiling at the women, now frozen in fear.

“Do not be afraid,” he said to them kindly. “I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised from the dead, and is going ahead of you to Galilee.”

That first Easter dawned with a great shaking and shifting as everything everyone thought they knew about the world was suddenly wrenched from beneath their feet.

While the account of Jesus’ crucifixion is nearly the same in each of the four gospels, the story of his resurrection varies greatly because the resurrection of Jesus had as much to do with the heart and spirit as with the eyes. People who encountered the risen Christ struggled to describe what had happened to them and those experiences couldn’t be pinned down with ordinary words; they required poetry to capture its mystery and wonder. In the gospel of John, we are told of lakeside appearances and fish breakfasts with Jesus; in Luke, Christ walks with his followers on the road to Emmaeus; the gospel of Mark leaves us at the empty tomb in an unfinished symphony, and in Matthew there are earthquakes. When the women went to the grave where Jesus had been laid and found the tomb empty, Matthew says, the very foundations of the earth shook and everything shifted. Matthew captures the experience of the resurrection, the sudden hope that maybe the powerful don’t have the final word; maybe, just maybe, we say on Easter, God’s grace is stronger. On Easter, we proclaim that Christ is present with us even now, having overcome the bonds of death and time to continue to live among us and lead us today in this place and in our lives. Suddenly on Easter, we know that what once we thought impossible is now possible. What once we had taken for granted as just being “the way of things” we no longer have to take for granted. What once we accepted as “normal” is suddenly open to question and challenge because in the resurrection, death was defeated and with its defeat, the weapons of death also met defeat: injustice, oppression, persecution, brutality, cruelty, and neglect. This no longer has to be the way of things, Easter says, because we live with a risen Christ, and everything has shifted.

The pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Rochester, Reverend Wendy Fambro, who also happens to be my sister, wrote this on her Facebook page a few days ago: “[During Holy Week, I’ve been thinking about] how much of human existence has been shaped by things being normalized throughout history – things that I believe are counter to what is needed for humanity to thrive. When did we normalize war? money? placing higher value on lives that are “first world”? white? male? rich? famous? heterosexual? When did we normalize collateral damage? claiming land? hoarding of resources? animal cruelty? We struggle and fight and give our time and lives to so much that has been just made up, imposed and normalized by humans – and somehow, people who wish to live lives that are created out of a different understanding of reality and human potential are seen as abnormal. Easter, to me, is a celebratory immersion in a reality that has resisted being normalized for thousands of years.”

On Easter, the world shifted and what was once normal and taken for granted, was now challenged and in question. Even death itself was not what it seemed.
On Easter, God raised Christ to new life and in doing so, released him from the bonds of space and time itself so that his grace might be let loose on the world and the dictates of the powers of the world would be robbed of their power over us.

On Easter, God invites us to meet the risen Christ and follow him to live in a world where “normal” means that the hungry are fed, the stranger welcomed, where people of all color, sexuality, and gender have a voice, and where every one of us who feels forgotten and lost can find healing for our weary hearts.

On Easter, God tells us that we can start living in that world right now by shaping our own lives in the dictates of Christ’s grace and challenging the voices that say such a world is impossible.

On Easter, God declares that Christ has risen, everything has shifted, and anything is possible. Alleluia, and Amen.