"In the Garden of the Resurrection"

Easter Sunday.A.20
Matthew 28:1-10
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

Journey with me to that first Easter morning, and enter the Garden of the Resurrection. As we listen to the description of that first Easter we quickly come to realize that it wasn’t filled with happiness so much as with fear and confusion, charged with the possibility of hope. As St. Matthew describes it for us this morning, the resurrection was a frightening, incomprehensible event, demanding courage and strength in order to receive the Good News.

Of the four Gospels, Matthew’s version of the first Easter morning is the most alarming, and quite frankly, the most awe-inspiring picture of the resurrection that we have. We begin with what Matthew tells us was a great earthquake. And if this isn’t enough to rock you from complacency, we are told that an angel of the Lord descends from heaven and rolls back the stone from the tomb. Now, about that angel: look closely. His appearance is in no way reassuring. His countenance is described as lightening and his clothing white as snow. The result is panicked guards who faint in terror. No benign being with a gentle countenance drifting about in pink gauze is this.

Taking this into account, it should come as no surprise that the women gathered at the tomb are afraid (even though, by now it is clear that the women are made of sterner stuff than the guards, lying prostrate on the ground). And so, it is no wonder that the first words of the angel are those of comfort and courage: “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised.” The women, they need to be braced; for what follows next is a command: “Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” This angel is all business. No mention of fluttering wings chirping birds or bunnies lolling about on the grass. He sounds more like the commander of a Marine battalion than a celestial being radiating good cheer. And now we are told, the women left the tomb with a mixture of “fear and joy”.

Notice this: The announcement of the resurrection doesn’t take away the fear of the women; rather it enables them to keep faith amid their fears; to do their duty and share the good news in spite of their anxiety—which must have been palpable. These women and their actions that first Easter morning—it is the very definition of courage. And, if you think about it—isn’t this just the kind of Good News we need to hear this holy day. The women walked into the empty tomb and out of it—and, the Bible tells us, Jesus met them on the way. Interestingly, Jesus echoes the words of the angel: “Do not be afraid.” It is these words which offer us the Good News this morning.

For fear is all around us, and it’s not without cause. We have reason to be afraid. People are dying in tragic numbers; hospitals and funeral homes are overwhelmed. Just this week, in several communities, the numbers of the ill and the dead are moving to a point of crisis. The scores of the unemployed are legion. Many of us are afraid to go outside and something as mundane as grocery shopping has taken on a nightmarish quality. We worry for ourselves, our children and grandchildren, and those we love. We are concerned for those who stand on the front lines: medical personnel and essential employees. We have no definite timeline in front of us. We are mired in uncertainty—and we know this is where we will be stuck for some time to come.

Living into our present moment as people of faith demands the same kind of courage that was asked of the women on the morning of the resurrection. Jesus says to the women ”Do not be afraid”. These words, I believe, give us insight into the very nature of our lives in this world as Christians. “Do not be afraid.” The resurrection of Christ creates the possibility for joy, hope and courage. The statement “Do not be afraid” is a reminder that the resurrection changes everything. Here we have God’s promise that life is stronger than death, that love is greater than hate, that mercy overcomes judgment, and that all the sufferings and difficulties of this life will, indeed, be overcome. It’s not a statement that these difficulties, including our present situation, aren’t without pain or suffering; it is instead a reminder that the trials and tribulations of our lives do not bear the last word and in no way represent the final reality that has been promised to us. Easter is possibility incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, and it demands courage. It is less a fairy tale and more a summons to live faithfully despite the darkness of the present hour.

The kind of courage an Easter faith demands reminds me of the funeral service of Winston Churchill. It was a service Churchill planned himself and was held in the great cathedral of St. Paul’s in London. At the close of the service a single trumpeter stood at the west end and sounded “Taps,” the song that signals dusk and the close of another day and is frequently played at the end of a military funeral. Certainly, all of this was to be expected of a great war-time leader. As the last plaintive note sounded, a moment of stillness followed. And then, on the east end of St. Paul’s—facing the rising sun, another trumpeter played Reveille, the song of the morning and the call for a new day to begin. Churchill understood that the promise of the resurrection—isn’t a conclusion to a story; a comforting and tidy end; but is instead a call of God ushering us into new life and never-ending possibility. The promise of the resurrection is hope—and to live into this promise takes courage. As mother Theresa said it so plainly: “Never let anything so fill you with sorrow as to make you forget the joy of Christ risen.” May your celebration of Easter be filled with the kind of hope that causes your feet to take flight and carry the Good News of our Savior’s resurrection to those who have yet to hear. Be of good courage and great cheer; for this is Easter day. In the name of the risen Lord of Life. Alleluia! Amen.

(an article: “Easter Courage” by David Lose, formed the inspiration for this sermon.)