April 16, 2017, Easter Sunday
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. 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.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
Alleluia, Christ has risen!
And in Matthew’s account, he has risen with quite a lot of unique fanfare! In fact, Matthew’s account is perhaps the most theologically and realistically persuasive of all four Gospels. Partly because Matthew’s account is the ONLY one in which the stone has not yet been rolled away from the tomb when the witnesses arrive. In every other Gospel account, we assume that Jesus’ body has been resurrected, but I’m pretty sure there is an episode of Law & Order out there where the body behind the stone was not raised as promised, but stolen for some nefarious reason…… the following was inspired in part by a true incident, but the story does not depict any actual person or event. I have always been suspicious of the Gospel accounts where the stone has been rolled away when the women arrive. But not in Matthew. In Matthew the tomb is sealed when the witnesses get there.
And it is not an incidental detail that, other than the empty tomb, the only thing that all four Gospels have in common in this story is that the first witnesses were women. The only corroborated parts of the story are that Jesus was indeed resurrected and the witnesses to that saving act of God were women. In every Gospel account Mary Magdalene is the first one of Jesus’ apostles on the scene.
As a personal observation and aside: If we want to take scripture as our model for the structure of our church tradition, with the most faithful apostles in the most celebrated positions of leadership, it feels like the debate should be about whether or not we should ordain men…..which of course we should. And, it is more than outrageous that not all Christian traditions, even those who say they subscribe to the authority of scripture, do not yet ordain women; the ones who waited with Jesus at the cross and were the witnesses to the resurrection.
Anyway, in Matthew, the tomb is still sealed when the women arrive. It’s hard to imagine that they could have expected to do anything other than sit Shiva given the heavy stone that enclosed Jesus’ tomb. But as soon as they get there a great earthquake erupts, just as Jesus had predicted, and an Angel of the Lord descends from heaven.
Now there are angels at the tomb in other Gospel accounts, but only in Matthew is this very specifically an Angel of the Lord; it’s not your run-of-the-mill-angel of which there are hundreds in our Holy Scripture. There are only seven Angels of the Lord that show up in our Gospels. Five of them appear in the virgin birth of Jesus (to Mary to Joseph and to the shepherds on the hill); one appears at the almost equally incredible birth of John the Baptist (whose mother was over 100 years old) ; and the last one appears right here in Matthew, at the wondrous birth of new and everlasting life. Every time an Angel of the Lord shows up, we can expect an outrageously radical new life on the scene.
In today’s Gospel, this Angel of the Lord descends and summarily rolls away the stone. I suppose we should expect an Angel of the Lord to be buff and robust. Fit enough to displace a boulder. But this one is buff enough that the Roman guards shook and became like dead men, says the scripture.
Although as far as we know, the women were not thusly incapacitated by the prowess of the Angel, who says to them what the Angel of the Lord always says: Do not be afraid. Another unique feature in Matthew’s telling of this story. Here the Angel says first what Jesus would have said first: do not fear. The recognition of this phrase must have given these women some comfort. Although I am guessing that fear was still in play, along with a host of other distressing emotions; among which was surely the feeling that they were lost. Very, very lost.
And so this week I have been meditating with a poem by David Wagoner by that same name: Lost. I have been hearing the poet’s powerful perspective through the lens of Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus who were probably feeling as dis-oriented as they had ever felt before.
Everything was now out of kilter. Every road ahead was going to be new. This was to be their new home. Not the tomb, but the state of being without Jesus as their leader, their teacher, their prophet and their friend. I am guessing that some of us here this morning know that feeling; know what it feels like to completely lose your bearings and everything you have counted on and worked toward your whole life. To find yourself standing in a place that shakes you to your core, wondering where to go from here. If you have, this morning’s Gospel assures that you are not alone.
Like the women at the tomb, new life is on the way. Sometimes it is a life that we are happy and ready to embrace, and sometimes it is not. For these Marys it was probably not. A new community would need to be constituted, but without their rabbi. And so they had no choice but to trust a new and unfamiliar path to show them the way to a place they could not yet imagine. And yet they were still willing.
I hear this new challenge before these women in David Wagoner’s poem. He based the poem on the teachings of the Indigenous Peoples of the Great American Northwest who used these instructions to guide their children if they ever found themselves to be lost in the dense wilderness of their homeland. This poem feels like a survivalist’s version of E.M. Forster’s famous line “Just Connect.”
But survivalist is probably not a bad description of Jesus’ remnant who went on to plant the early church. Here’s the poem:
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know  and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to [the] Raven.
No two branches are the same to [the] Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost.
Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
And that is just what Jesus does. Jesus who is now the forest and the trees and the breath that passes between them and surpasses all understanding. Jesus finds them. The women leave the tomb in awe and great joy and run to tell the disciples what they have witnessed. But before they get to their destination, Jesus appears to them on the road and greets them, heartily. And they recognize him, immediately. And he confirms his identity with that trademark phrase, now the second time they have heard it on this amazing morning: Do not be afraid.
But it’s too late….because clearly they are not afraid, for they have already grasped his feet and are worshiping him as he is telling them to fear not. They are good disciples, these women. They have learned their lessons well. Mary is once again at the feet of Jesus. For Jesus has found them where they are. They are simply Here, and Here is now home.
Where ever you are is called Here…..Stand still. The forest knows where you are. You must let it find you.
And indeed these women do just that. Just a short time before, feeling utterly lost standing in that agonizingly empty tomb, and now utterly filled with joy at the feet of their beloved Rabbi. Their expectations transformed in less than the time it takes to walk from Here to home. Utterly changed from what must have felt like utterly lost to unexpectedly found.
This is the lesson we learn from these faithful women who have followed Jesus from Galilee, who stayed with him at the foot of his cross, and who have now come to start the next generation in the wake of his ministry. This is the pattern of Christian faith: lost and then found. Repeat until everlasting life kicks in.
But in that cadence of losing ourselves in faith and finding ourselves in faith, over and over and over again, we are slowly but surely transformed…..as were these women when they recognized their beloved Jesus on the lost road to finding their new life.
This early Christian paschal experience of responsive transformation reminds me of Darwin. For you will remember that survival of the fittest does not favor the strongest of the species, or the most plentiful, or the most intelligent, or the most simple or the most complex, or even those with the most toys. No, surviving, and indeed thriving, favors those who are most willing and able to change. Not impulsively. But intentionally. Those who are so grounded in their core value that nothing can stand in their way, not even death. And so they are willing to embrace change without fear. In this context, transformation is just another word for no roads left to choose.
For Darwin that core value that outweighed all else was survival…of the fittest. For Jesus it was love…..of all of God’s children. And for these women who had followed their Rabbi from Galilee to death and resurrection, I suspect their core value was home. Home was where Jesus was. Which is why and how they so readily left their families to follow this itinerant preacher in the first place. Jesus was their home, their sanctuary.
Our beloved community has been talking about sanctuary a lot lately; about offering some of our parish space to welcome undocumented immigrants who have a legal path to residency here in this great nation, but who are at risk of deportation before that path is realized.
It is hard to contemplate the events of Holy Week and the sacrifices made by Jesus’ followers and not think about the meaning of sacrificial discipleship in our own time and place in general; and in particular, about the contingent of undocumented people in our midst; over 200,000 in Massachusetts alone. And in the current dangerously nationalistic climate that has welled up in the power structures of our country, these undocumented brothers and sisters are all, in one way or another, fundamentally lost in a country that is increasingly hostile to their very presence; to their very existence. Whether they have lived here for decades or are newly arrived, their security is at impending risk. And if they are deported the risk may be to their lives.
And so we have been talking about the possible fit between our gifts and the needs of this marginalized population. Could we see ourselves offering part of our undercroft, all but unused in any substantial way at this juncture, to a family who needs a place to find welcome and hospitality, although not security – for we cannot offer that. The authorities can always breach our threshold if they are inclined to do so. But churches, like schools and hospitals, are generally understood to be “sensitive areas;” off limits, if only theoretically, to immigration raids.
And so here we are. This may not have been our first choice of ministries of resistance, but it is the choice that dovetails with our current gifts and resources and conditions. We have a great set up for level 1 sanctuary. Lots of open space. Two bathrooms downstairs and a shower in the back of the rectory. A large kitchen. Two lockable rooms in the undercroft that we can still use for our own needs. Our yard is fenced in. And Newton is already a sanctuary city.
Nevertheless, it would be a massive undertaking, this Level 1 commitment. And we could not even consider making it without at least a half dozen seriously committed level 2 partners to help provide the necessities of life for folks who who will literally be captive in our space: they would need food, laundry, tutoring, access to medical care, the list is long. Nevertheless, I think we have such partners waiting in the wings as we speak.
But our commitment to house a family in our own space is inherently a bit more precarious than the level 2 commitment of support. It’s the old comparison between eggs and bacon. The chicken makes an investment, but the hog is all in. Level one is all in. We would have to commit ourselves whole hog, as it were. And our parish life would be ontologically changed. Not forever. But for now.
Although, that may just be the reason to say yes to this uncertain ministry that to date has no given rules and few case studies. We would be on the forefront of this movement. And so yes, there would be a substantial number of risks and sacrifices that would surely come, and yet there are several excellent reasons to seriously consider making this momentous leap of faith:
- The vestry has been talking about ways to better use our unused space in accordance with our ministry priorities and values for the nine years that I have been here. And the undercroft is currently a marvelously cavernous space that is not being used. It is virtually empty seven days a week; a veritable empty tomb just waiting to host a resurrection to new life.
- We would enter into a covenantal relationship with at least six other communities of faith, our level 2 partners; only a couple of whom will likely be Episcopalian and not all of whom will be Christian. This is an outstanding opportunity to do the sort of meaningful deep collaboration that we have been dreaming about for years!
- We can truly and meaningfully contribute to changing the narrative in our nation that increasingly rejects and excludes those whom “we” have decided do not “belong” here. We can be living witnesses to the casualties of our arrogant and ungodly national policy of “America First.” I am quite sure that the risen Christ would be on board with changing this narrative, as today he and his apostles would surely have fit the bill of undocumented trespassers.
- This is the best opportunity that we have before us to remind the world and ourselves of what church is all about. We are nothing if not a place of welcome. We are nothing if not a place of hospitality. We are nothing if not a place of sanctuary. Sanctuary is not just our job description, it is the credential in our DNA, as followers of Christ crucified and risen who stood with every marginalized undocumented child of the living God till death did them part.
And so if we decide to do this, we will have the opportunity to live into the sign on our front lawn: No hate, no fear everyone is welcome here. Integrity is a beautiful thing! We will be a beacon of courage and compassion for the larger church, and for the world, and for our children.
This is a chance for us to remember who we are. Re-member. Put ourselves back together, again, as a Christian community. And there is no better time for that re-membrance than Eastertide. When Jesus himself is changing his relationship in and to the world. And so I think that we are here and now in the right place at the right time. We might want to keep our eyes open for that Angel of the Lord.
But honestly, I don’t know if we will come to the place where we can make this level one sacrifice. It’s a lot to ask. It’s a lot offer. But my prayer is that we will put ourselves on the line with those apostles, the women and men who sacrificed so much to follow Jesus, and think about the sort of new life that we might build if we are willing to go the distance. My prayer is that we will seriously discern this road together. Share our hopes and our fears, our certainties and our doubts. And if at the end of our conversation we decide that this is not our calling, our decision will have been intentionally and prayerfully reached. And that is all the angels can ask.
In the meantime, let us remember that, like the women and men who followed Jesus, we are not entirely in control. And so may we be both open to the new life that can come from the wild imagination of a loving God, patient in that openness. Because sometimes we just need to bide our time and let the Holy Spirit do her thing.
So friends, to paraphrase…okay, to tweak David Wagoner in this season of Eastertide:
Let us stand still willing. The Spirit knows where we are. Let us let her find us.
For Alleluia, Christ has Risen indeed!
© April, 2017 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw