April 21, 2019 Sermon – Easter

“Life and Death”                                                                                                          Matthew 28:1-10
Rev. Sean Weston                                                                                                                           
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL
April 21, 2019

The story was never supposed to get out.

Four verses before the Bible passage we heard today you’ll find this story: After Jesus was crucified, the powers that be got together and talked to Pilate, the Roman governor. We remember, they said, that Jesus said he would rise from the dead. We don’t want his people to come steal his body and claim that happened! That would make things worse than before! So Pilate agreed to send soldiers to guard Jesus’ tomb.

Then we get to today’s story, where two women named Mary come to the tomb, experience an incredible earthquake, talk with an angel, witness Pilate’s guards becoming like dead men due to so much fear, and meet Jesus alive. That’s a pretty incredible story, but if you’ve ever been to Easter services you’ve heard it before. Maybe so much that you haven’t truly heard it for a while.

And then there are five more verses. After the women head to get word to the men, the soldiers tell the authorities what happened. So the authorities bought the soldiers off, paying them to say the disciples had taken Jesus’ body away.

Because powerful people were trying to hide it, we know it was something big. Powerful people will do anything to keep the truth buried. The story was never supposed to get out.

But the story got out. It has been out for a long time. We may or may not believe it or understand it, but anyone who has been to an Easter service knows it’s the day that we hear about this Jesus who was dead but is alive again. And then, we leave to go back to our lives. The flowers find new homes, the church calendar goes back to normal, and for a story that was supposed to change everything sometimes it seems like it doesn’t change much of anything.

Life goes on. And death goes on.

Yes, the story says that Jesus was resurrected three days after his death. But you and I know that each of us will one day die and stay dead. What scripture calls the “power of death”[1] continues to work over us and the world. Yes, the power of death is that mysterious force that will eventually cause each of us to draw our last breath, but it is also the reality that how long you have before you take that breath and what life will be like for you in the meantime depends on the zip code you were born in. For the power of death is anything that stands in the way of life. The power of death is at work when people seeking safety in this country are demonized and detained. And the power of death is at work when families are torn apart by violence, abuse, or bigotry; the power of death is at work when people work themselves to the bone yet never truly live.

In Jesus’ day and our day, people have tried to control the power of death, no matter the cost to others. Thou shalt not kill, the commandment says, yet governments reserve the right for themselves if they say they need to – like they did when crucifying Jesus. We have been taught to believe that there is no greater power on earth than the powers that be, keeping everyone in their place, with bombs or bullets if need be. We have been taught, just like Jesus’ people were, that goodness and truth and justice and peace comes from accepting that the way things are is the way they’re supposed to be.

It’s no wonder the guards were bribed to say that Jesus’ disciples stole his body from the tomb. If a crucified criminal could be raised from the dead, Pilate and his soldiers weren’t so powerful after all. How would the powerful hold on to their power? How would they keep the people in their place? So money changed hands. The story wasn’t supposed to get out.

As United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon says, “They hope that through a few bribes they can stop all this resurrection-induced commotion and negotiate a return to business as usual.”[2] And still today there are plenty of people and churches today who think what we need more than anything is a return to some seemingly comfortable business as usual; to be told “everything will be okay.”

Today it might go something like this: the guards would write up their reports: “there’s nothing to see here.” Somehow the dash cam happened to be malfunctioning that day, but no worries, everything’s on the up and up. If a special counsel were appointed to look into the empty tomb, the report might run four hundred and forty-eight pages without drawing any conclusions. Pilate would hold a press conference to offer a full-throated defense of his administration’s truth and integrity. Believe the guards, he would say, not these Judean women.

Power, whether in religion or government or anywhere else, would have us believe the guards over the women every time. If we believe the guards then life goes on and death goes on, and we can worship a predictable god that blesses the “way things are.” But God does not call us to give a churchly blessing to the status quo, though it is tempting, especially when times are tough. God calls us to believe the women at the empty tomb, who saw Jesus alive after watching him die.

If we believe the women who came to the tomb that day, the women who met Jesus on the road, the women who saw with their very eyes that there is more in the world than the powers that be, then everything changes. Then there is a God whose love and power is greater even than death. A God whose Kingdom is forever, unlike all our petty human Kingdoms. A God more powerful even than death, challenging everything we thought we knew.

If we believe the women, we learn that death need not keep us from living. We witnessed to this truth just eight days ago at the Memorial service for Chuck Helms, beloved saint of this church, when singing A Mighty Fortress is our God: “The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still, God’s Reign Endures Forever.”[3]

The criminal justice system had its say with Jesus: “crucify him.” But if we believe the women, there is a God working in the world who says no to the way we humans have run things, a God that does not accept the injustice and violence we visit upon one another. We need not wait until our own death to see God’s will be done, because God is working on earth here and now and we can be part of it. For the path to true life comes not from ignoring the power of death, but by facing it head on with Jesus, the Crucified and Risen One, at our side. Or as Martin Luther King, Jr. said at the 1963 March on Detroit, “If [someone] hasn’t discovered something that [they] will die for, [they aren’t] fit to live.”[4]

This is the witness of the church throughout the ages: Jesus is Risen. We believe the women. It’s surprising and shocking. It doesn’t make sense, and can’t be explained. Their story challenges everything we thought we knew about how the world works. It challenges everything that the powerful want us to think we know. But as Willimon says, “Whether or not the world receives this Easter truth with joy and belief, this is our story, and by the grace of God we are sticking with it.”[5] We believe the women, whether or not it fills pews or closes deficits; we believe the women even when it means challenging the powers of this world; we believe the women not for a return to our glory days but so that God’s glory and incredible love can be made known through us, the followers of Jesus.

That is where faith begins. We will gather next week, and the week after that, to keeping figuring out what it could mean and why it matters. We Christians have been doing that for over two thousand years. And people will still be gathering in faith long after you and I have seen the other side of death, no matter what happens to you and me, no matter what happens to this beloved church. No. Matter. What.

Because we believe the women. The power of death does not have the final say. Jesus is Risen.

Alleluia, and Amen.

[1] Hebrews 2:14

[2] Feasting on the Gospels – Matthew: Volume 2: A Feasting on the Word Commentary. Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

[3] Martin Luther, c. 1529; tr. Frederick H. Hedge, 1852; adapt. Ruth Duck, 1981, 1990. © 1981, 1990 Ruth Duck

[4] Edited for gender inclusivity. Orirginal meaning preserved. http://www.mlkonline.net/detroit.html

[5] Feasting, op. cit.