April 12, 2020 Easter

“Do Not Be Afraid!”

Matthew 28:1-10


It might seem a bit strange to you, but I spent most of my preparation time for today’s sermon out on my back porch this past Good Friday. I read through Matthew chapters 26 and 27, before I even started on today’s passage, contemplating the twisting turning story of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. I identified with the disciples, their promise to follow Jesus, even unto death, and then they're turning away and running from Jesus when things got rough. I wondered at the crowds who chose another rather than Jesus to release. I considered if I too might plead with Jesus to come down off the cross so that others would believe. I read the section of the guards not just rolling a heavy stone in front of Christ’s tomb, but that they sealed it, and then stood guard. I spent an hour or so enfolded by this story of suffering and death, of betrayal and shadows.


I found myself in that moment fully identifying with Good Friday, realizing that it feels as if we are all in the tomb right now, stone in front, sealed, and death and darkness is all around us. Even 3 days later, today feels more like Good Friday rather than Easter, and perhaps this day is but one in a string of Good Fridays yet to come.  It just doesn’t feel like Easter now, and really it shouldn’t. Look at what is happening in our world right now. In Oregon, we’ve been sheltering in place for the most part since March 23rd. Now 97% of the rest of our nation has joined us in hunkering down. Regular life feels tomblike, as we remain in our homes and rarely go outside.


When we DO go outside, it just feels weird. We meet others, say “Hello” while trying to keep our appropriate social distances. When I go for a run or walk my dog and see other people doing the same, I can feel the angst rise up in both parties as we warily pass each other. When we find ourselves having to go to the grocery store to shop, it is awkward- some people with masks, others without, making sure when we go down the aisles not to get too close to another shopper, wondering if we will ever see toilet paper and hand sanitizer stocked on the shelves once again, standing at the designated spaces while waiting to check out.  Life just feels off-kilter, to say the least.


Considering the theme of sacrificial love, we have heard the heartbreaking stories of doctors and nurses, literally sacrificing their lives to try to save patients. At least 100 doctors and 26 nurses have died in Italy over the last couple of weeks. Many doctors and nurses have gotten the virus here in the US while trying to care for dying patients. These stories of self-sacrifice aren’t limited just to the medical field. We’ve heard the story of the bus driver in Detroit pleading with his passengers to cover their mouths when they cough, worrying about his own life, while serving others, eventually contracting the virus himself from some of his sick passengers, and tragically dying.


When it comes to the tomb, and Christ’s death…Some of us have lost loved ones to this deadly virus, and grieve their loss, bringing the suffering and death right to our doorstep. We’ve all heard the startling, terrible stories coming out of this nation’s epicenter for the Corona-19 virus in New York, City;  800 or more people dying every day from the virus;  an average of 200 people being found every day dead in their homes; refrigerated trucks parked all over city streets serving as makeshift morgues; the governor calling in additional morticians to handle all of the deaths;  and now, a mass grave being dug on an island in New York to try to deal with the bodies piling up. It is the stuff of nightmares, darkness, and death. What is happening in New York may soon happen in other cities like Philadelphia, Detroit, New Orleans or Los Angeles.  What is happening in New York is a repeat of similar stories that have emerged from cities in China, Italy, and Spain. To date, more than 100,000 people worldwide have died since this pandemic began a few months ago. 


In the midst of feeling as if we are stuck on Good Friday, I am called to come to you this morning, preaching to a mostly empty sanctuary, with one Easter Lilly on the communion table to proclaim a message of new life, resurrection, and hope. In reality, in hearing today’s gospel message I identify more with Mary and Mary Magdalene, coming to see the tomb and mourn the loss of Jesus.   At best, it feels as if today should be proclaimed, “Easter(ish),” rather than Easter. How does the story of an empty tomb and Risen Savior speak to us, we who feel as if we are stuck in the tomb, reliving Good Friday repeatedly?


Rev. Brian Heron, who is our executive presbyter for vision and mission in Cascades Presbytery wrote, We are indeed an extended season of Good Friday. We are going to be living with loss and death for weeks, if not months. This is our reality right now. The good news of Holy Week is that Good Friday is not the final chapter of God’s narrative, but just the prelude to new life, to new possibility and to resurrection. Yes, it is a particularly painful chapter to have to endure and negotiate our way through, but it is not the end of the story. Easter is God’s spectacular finale.”


Despite this being a time of an extended Good Friday, the spectacular finale of Easter still comes. Easter means being able to see hope in the midst of all the darkness, of being able to hold onto that promise of new life, even in the midst of the death that surrounds us. This story in Matthew proclaims that Christ’s last words upon the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” were not the end of the story. The stone being rolled in front of the entrance of the tomb and sealed by the guards was not the end of the story. Death does not prevail. Suffering is not eternal.  Evil does not win. We have been told this story of great news, of new life in the midst of a dark and difficult time for us all. This time of pandemic, death, of fear and suffering, is not the end of the story.


Theologian Jill Duffield, editor of Presbyterian Outlook writes, “If ever we need to hear  ‘Do not be afraid,’ it is now. Can we take the angel and the Son of Man at their word? For just a breath, a beat, a moment? Can we let the possibility of joy mingle with our palpable sorrow long enough to see that the stone has been rolled away and the tomb is in fact vacant? Can we see that the body we came to tend is instead alive, right in front of us telling us to rejoice? Even as we reel from the violence and terror, the suffering and the death we experience, can we recognize our Risen Lord among us and worship?”


There is still hope for us all, even in the midst of this global pandemic, and that really is the spectacular last chapter of Easter- hope.  The Risen Lord is among us even now, even in the struggles of this extended Good Friday. Through Christ’s spirit, where we can be forgiven, freed from our fears and find peace in Christ, who is also present with us. The Risen Messiah wants us to share this chapter of great news, repeating the words spoken to Mary and Mary Magdalene, “Do not be afraid! Go and tell!” to others.


These words launch us into an Easter faith based on the knowledge that the world did its worst against Jesus, spitting upon, insulting, humiliating, torturing, and killing him, and yet it is the empty tomb, and not his enemies, which has the last word at the end of the story. The Risen Christ has overcome all the powers of darkness. Theologian Marjorie Suchocki says, “The edges of God are tragedy; the depths of God are joy, beauty, resurrection, life. Resurrection answers crucifixion. Life answers death.” The message of life speaks to the darkness we find ourselves in at the moment.


Therefore, sisters and brothers, even in the midst of this extended Good Friday, Do Not Be Afraid! Go and Tell! Christ Is Risen! This ringing proclamation that Jesus has risen from the grave is God’s message of hope to the people of the world in the midst of this tragic time of great suffering and loss. 


Do not be afraid! Go and tell how the mercy of Jesus erases our past! Christ’s love shelters people caught in the bondage of their failures. His teachings offer a new way of living to the world. 


Do not be afraid! Go and tell that Christ’s companionship enriches our present, and helps us overcome even the darkest of days as we shelter in place, for we remember that we are not alone. His courage liberates people overwhelmed by injustice. Christ’s compassion motivates others to great sacrifice, as we have witnessed in so many ways this past couple of months. Christ’s hope will meet us on the road of our sorrow and strengthen us for our journey.


The resurrected Christ kindles a flame of hope, even as we face our own death. Our hope in a resurrected messiah assures us that when this earthly life is over, Christ has gone before us to prepare a place for us- a place where we will one day see those who have died before us, and our hearts will rejoice, and our joy no one will take away from us.


It is true-death and darkness surrounds us. Good Friday is so real we can reach out and touch it. Yet that is not the end of the story. The churches may be empty this Easter Sunday, but that is all right- the TOMB is empty! Do not be afraid! Go and Tell! Christ IS Risen. He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen.


Pastoral Prayer -Gracious and loving God, this Easter Sunday reminds us that you are a God of hope, even in the midst of death. As Jesus met Mary and Mary Magdalene, so we meet you daily, in the unexpected epiphanies of our lives, even in the shadows of the tomb. In the glow of morning, in the promise of this new day, may we be renewed and reborn in our spirits. In gratitude for your forgiving and empowering love, we receive fresh encouragement to love our neighbors, to walk with them in sorrow, and to live in hope, not fear. At the cross, there was despair. But the empty tomb breathes life into our tired bones, lifts us up, fills us with hope, and sends us out to serve. And so, this glad day, we recommit ourselves to your reign of love and justice. As the caterpillar becomes a glorious butterfly, so we now are reborn in a message of hope for the world. As the new day dawns, so shall we rise in splendor on the day of glorious resurrection. The rising of Christ from death to life echoes in our hearts. Hallelujah! Amen!

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