(Matthew 28:1-10; Colossians 3:1-4)
I wanted to talk about that earthquake. It seemed exciting and supernatural and very particular to Matthew’s version of Easter. It has creation responding to the news of this day, making an earthquake somehow unlikely good news. It paired with an even more obscure tremor from Good Friday, when the splitting of rocks broke open tombs for dead saints to come out and wander around Jerusalem. Look it up! In this case, though, the earthquake tumbling away the stone wasn’t to let the dead out but breaking for witnesses to enter; Jesus is already gone from his grave, loose, alive and in life. Even for the metaphorical edge of this earthshaking news, of the risen Jesus altering the very ground we stand on, I wanted to talk about the earthquake.
But then I noticed another shaking, in verse 4: “for fear…the guards shook and became like dead men.” I must’ve always skimmed past that verse, but now it called out for attention. On this day when we’re gathered with Alleluias around a dead man who’s not dead anymore, I’m struck by those guards who, though quite plainly alive, are described as dead in the face of this event. It’s a stunning Easter reversal: those who seemed to have the power and armed might became impotent, and the one whom those guards killed—the executed corpse—is alive and free and able even to overcome death. Apparently without any violent struggle, death has lost its sting amid this shocking good news.
But those guards sure don’t consider it good news. And they had compelling reason not to. In the last words of Good Friday, the Gospel says the authorities conspired to have those guards make the tomb as secure as they could. At the very least, the stone tumbling aside takes them off guard duty; if they were hired as tough security bouncers, to be night watchmen, then this seems cancel their contract. I picture the JBM patrol that monitors our property at night with their flashlights and camouflage pants and mildly militarized SUVs. What if we shut off the motion detectors and alarm system, gave up on locks, and said the building was wide open for anybody who might need to use it, indeed, was a place of sanctuary? While from one perspective, it is liberation from fear, from another, having the tomb broken open places the livelihood and paychecks of those guards at risk.
More, they risk not only being fired from their jobs, but might have feared worse, since their bosses were such a ruthless and nasty sort. In punishing retribution, it wouldn’t have been unprecedented for them to get tossed in jail, a reversal from being guards to captives. Or maybe such fears already held them captive and the unstoppable Jesus somehow liberates them from that.
At any rate, whether they were trying to keep others out or keep Jesus in, neither the authorities nor those guards could do anything to stop God’s spread of life, couldn’t keep this good news shut up. As Jesus breaks loose, their remaining options are confined and they are as bad as dead in comparison.
There’s probing parallel here for us, that Jesus and his resurrection put at risk some of our old ways of life, some of the roles in which we’re used to functioning, and some of the structures of our relationships. That should likely be a bit nerve-wracking for you this morning, too. Easter isn’t simply a holiday to give you some leisure and luxury. There are good and vital reasons to feast on eggs and chocolates and spread big tables and enjoy the delights of life, from music to company to wine to the spring sunshine. Such joys have basis in also having to confront that things are not the same as they used to be, and if you’re pretending that life should or even can go on as it would have otherwise, then those guards who shook like dead men must have a better understanding of Easter than you do.
But that’s another striking edge of the story. It’s astonishing to picture those guards as eyewitnesses to the resurrection. They have a firsthand view and should have been able to recognize God’s reversal of death for life, but there’s something of it they still don’t get. Even though they see it, they don’t believe. It doesn’t create faith in them. Unlike the women disciples, they aren’t rushing on to proclaim the good news and spread the word.
We might want to write that off as them being bad guys and that’s why they weren’t on Jesus’ side, but that’s too hasty. It requires a finer distinction. After all, from start to finish the story of Jesus is about forgiving sinners and befriending the bad dudes and loving enemies. There are insiders who fall away and outsiders who are brought in. Dualistic thinking in categories of good vs. bad can’t actually fit into the story.
So it wouldn’t be a foregone conclusion for those guards to be dead in the face of resurrected life. A reverse example was portrayed in the previous chapter, where one of their leaders, a centurion, reacted to the death of Jesus on the cross by saying “Truly this man was God’s Son!” If he could come to that conclusion by witnessing only death, then certainly these guys should have theoretically been able to arrive there in witnessing new life.
So why didn’t it turn out that way for them? Maybe they were stuck in the rut of all-too-human reasons. The mundane stuff. Supporting families. Forced to, by pressure—either from peers and what seemed acceptable or the fear of the powers-that-be (or maybe better from the view of Easter’s reversal, “the powers-that-were”). The verses after this reading say the authorities offered bribes for those guards not to tell what they had seen. Maybe they were compelled by sad reasons of trading their dignity and integrity for a payoff. Whether with good intentions or not, regular existence can interfere.
Maybe it’s simpler and more human even than that. Beyond awesome jaw-dropping amazement, this is just dang unbelievable. That has implications for us, too. We expect that the forces of death are the strong, fierce ones, that we win by launching missiles and fighting back. But here it is a no-megaton bomb with the power of love and peace. That death is not the end can stop us in our tracks as confounding. A victory for life can be incomprehensibly miraculous to us.
Though we might even yearn to trust that possibility, we also recognize that in spite of being part of church and hearing the same message as others, there are times it doesn’t seem to stick, just as somehow it didn’t work for those guards witnessing firsthand. You may be trying to believe, wishing to hear it as good news, but for some reason you can’t. It’s a confounding and frustrating feeling, that “the Holy Spirit creates faith when and where she chooses” in the explanation of Lutheran theology (which manages not really to explain anything) (Augsburg Confession V).
But. If you happen to be here this morning feeling like you’re left out, like the wind of the Holy Spirit blew right past you, like you so desperately want some good news and new life to live into, are longing for a change, crave other possibilities than what currently exists, to be rejuvenated and energized, to have the rotten stuff taken away, not to be trapped by so much bad news and death, if you need the Easter reversal—if you can relate to these guards who were afraid and incapacitated and didn’t seem to have any way out of it and were as good as dead, then you should know that the Holy Spirit’s work is always to bring new life out from death, to call us from our stinking tombs, to break barriers, to breathe new life into dried-up bones and worn-out bodies.
And if with these guards that feels like you, you should know that this Easter morning is especially for you, just as your own stunning reversal is proclaimed in Colossians: You have died, and you have been raised with Christ. Even as that is often much too hidden, too mysterious, so unknown, you may trust that your life is secure and free with Christ. Since you are dead, you are given new life. Alleluia! Christ is risen!
a new hymn, “The First,” for today
In daily toil for daily bread
we sweat and strive ‘til we are dead.
With nothing new under the sun,
our chores and tasks are never done.
So the question still must lurk:
what gains are there in our work?
Yet even as we wonder “why?”
we may still be quite satisfied.
The jobs well done and lessons learned
are even more than paychecks earned.
Confidence we can do right
certifies our rest at night.
We do not just receive profits
but share our labors in service.
In roles of living as we should
our skills enrich the common good.
Through varied talents and arts
we are Christ’s own body parts.
Equipped for big tasks and small things
our vocations are God’s calling.
In office, neighborhood, or home
we are employed for God’s kingdom.
Inspired and sent across lands
we do God’s work with our hands.
Trying to capture various senses of “work,” this moves from the fairly unhappy realism of Ecclesiastes, toward contentment of Proverbs, on to Paul’s views of shared and mutual responsibility, until finally the broadest sense of Christian vocation throughout life.
sermon for Reformation Sunday (Jeremiah31:31-34; Psalsm46; Romans3:19-28; John8:31-36)
Things are sure different these days. I know that’s cliché or even trite to say. That today is not exactly the same as yesterday should go without saying.
Yet today, for this Reformation day, for this moment in our faith life, this is an appropriate time again to note that things are different.
Partly it comes to mind because of Confirmation for our 10th graders. There are those among us who look back to this day long ago in your lives and remind the younger of us that you had to recite the Small Catechism from memory and risked the pressure of failure in front of the congregation and also that you couldn’t have communion until after you were confirmed and you feared your pastor and hated these classes at church, and—we’re sure—that you also had to walk uphill both ways miles to get to church.
So we’d have to say “good riddance” to “good old days” of that sort! We can well celebrate that church is now a place of relationships and not just rote memorization, more of nurture than fear, of reinforcing God’s blessings rather than threats. Some change is indeed good. And there’s some change that’s not as good, as we know.
For perceptions of change, let’s go back to the Old Testament, starting with our Psalm, since it describes vast changes. The early verses portray natural disasters, maybe with earthquakes or flooding like in Texas and Hurricane Patricia. Perhaps Luther’s paraphrase of this, on losing house or life itself, calls to mind recent wildfires. Or these may be words about the very earth in peril, of its foundations falling apart, as we have to confront in the reality of climate change.
The Psalm goes on to more apparently human destruction, of wars between nations, the hordes and tyrants in Luther’s wording. The Psalm’s fearfulness in Jerusalem pairs with those suffering in the Holy Land today, encountering threats of violence and intimidation and oppression. There’s a perpetual theme of access to God—the practice of religion—being cut off by those with weapons.
That’s enough parallels from ancient to modern that we might claim nothing ever changes. And yet the point is, amid the various ongoing threats to life and wellbeing that would take away what we need or count on, that God won’t be overcome. We proclaim with the Psalm, “we will not fear; God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble!”
That’s also a worthy reminder as we encounter transitions here, in the changes at St. Stephen’s. We rely on God who is with us to give us assistance and ability.
To move ahead, the Jeremiah reading also encounters change. It was written during a period of exile, far from that temple in Jerusalem, when people were without the usual comforts of life and home. Picture when you have moved someplace new and unfamiliar, or imagine what that moment will bring. That’s already enough instability and trepidation.
What made it more so for Jeremiah’s people was that they saw this dispersal from home as a punishment from God, a result of their failure to obey God’s laws and to follow God’s will for our lives and our communities. Though we may want to stop to argue about that view of punishment and consequences of disobedience, to move on to what this prophet is saying is an amazing and wonderful change.
Jeremiah says because God changed God’s mind, God will change your heart. God’s ultimately given up on lectures and to-do lists and sets of rules to try to get you to love your neighbor or to trust God’s goodness. Instead, God is just going to put a new heart in you. For those who remember Dick Mueser’s heart transplant eleven years ago and how much it changed him and gave him life, this is what God is up to in all of us, the work of faith, a faith that isn’t about forcing you into anything but about giving you a heart for service, for love, the heart of Christ.
That, then, points to Paul’s letter to the Romans. Also a time of change, this was when good news of God creating in us what we need was first understood as being also among outsiders, for categories of those who hadn’t been labeled as God’s people before. The old order was circumstantial: being born into the right genealogy, practicing the right habits, about what you had to do to be in right relationship with God.
But in an enormous change of understanding—one still causing us to expand our vision and reexamine our prejudices—this good news of the early church threw open the doors to all who had been excluded, had been excommunicated, been told that their access to God and participation in community was restricted or forbidden. This has repercussions both for our own anxieties and for how we interact with others. It says there’s nothing you can do that would make God abandon you, cut you off, give up on you. As Nadia Bolz-Weber writes about a woman in her new book:
“God loves her now. Not just after she manages to start making better decisions, not after she [cleans herself up]. God loves us now, all of us, as we are. Sometimes the simple experience of knowing this, of knowing that our sin is not what defines us, can finally set us free.”*
That woman was a meth addict who had just miscarried a pregnancy and was blaming the social worker, taking no responsibility herself. God loves her.
This is how all of this expands. It’s for you when you don’t fit in with your peers, and it’s for classmates who just seem weird or like jerks. It’s for when you’ve got a bad diagnosis and treatments aren’t doing what you want. It’s for the family whose son is transitioning to become their daughter. It’s for the dead and for the killers. With what I believe has especially been heard too little, it’s good news not just for humans but all God’s creatures. It’s that God loves the world. Jesus dies with you and for you, and will redeem all of our mess by raising it out of death. None of the hurt or tragedy can separate you from God’s love. Nothing that goes wrong indicates God has forsaken you or withheld newness of life or decided not to bless you. On the flip side, no amount of what you learn or credits you’ve earned or things you try to do right get you any closer to God, because God is already with you, as close as God’s new heart living in you.
That this good news is spreading and unstoppable may take us to another mark of our historical trajectory of looking at change. We went from Old Testament times into the start of the church and its welcome of outsiders, failures, sinner, bullies, and weirdos. That radical total inclusivity of the good news of God reforming us takes us up to the Reformation, to that October day when Martin Luther posted discussion points on a town bulletin board. Those 95 theses sparked much more than a debate in setting off enormous change not only to the church but to western culture and the shape of our lives still. There’s more cultural geography lesson there than we could go into.
For our arc today, we note that although we live with Luther’s heritage, we live in a very different time. Luther got copies of the Bible into people’s hands by translating it into their language and using the new technology of the printing press. But that’s a long way from the comic book Bibles we’re giving kids today or Mari Mitchell’s Bible app she reads during breaks at school on her iPod.
Among other changes, we could also consider the different place and role of the church. In Luther’s time, the church was so central and so present in people’s lives there was almost no escaping it. There was no choosing not to be part of a church. But to be kicked out of church (like Luther was) made you exempt from society, an outlaw, literally outside-the-law, a life that had no value, where if somebody killed you they wouldn’t even be punished for it. A single hierarchy of the church controlled much of society, as opposed to so many denominations now and our very regular interactions with people of other religions or no religion.
And the problem in Luther’s time was that the church, this institution that was so constantly present, was proclaiming the wrong message, was undermining the good news from God, and so people weren’t able to hear it and get the relief and blessing they so desperately needed.
I suspect we’ve got partially the opposite problem now, that the church disappears so far into the background of busy lives filled with choices amid bustling society and all kinds of news and advertising and stresses and that we’re overwhelmed by these dominating messages from the world around us, and that is the reason we aren’t hearing the good news from God and getting the relief and blessing we so desperately need.
Which brings us to this Confirmation class today. This is a milestone in their different and changing lives, with all kinds of new experiences and exciting opportunities and developing identities and lots of pressures. Along with all that, Confirmation itself has regularly marked a big change in life. We have good reason to celebrate their completion of all kinds of requirements and the end of sermon notes and, in many families, the transition when young adults are given their own decisions on how (and sometimes even whether) to participate in church.
But it’s also a reminder from Jesus, who tells us that remaining with him is what liberates us. As this group largely understands, this isn’t a moment to escape church, to be excluded from this gathering. Rather, as so many voices bombard you by saying you’re not good enough and need to work harder and act differently and be somebody else—voices that come even amid some very good parts of life—yet that can be what confines you, enslaves you, is what you need to be set free from. And that’s why we continue repeating the good news that’s an old, old story, what we share here of a Lord who is willing to die for you—yes, you!—just because he loves you and he’ll take tender care of you and bring you through it, for today, and for whatever changes tomorrow brings, and forever.
* Accidental Saints, p135