Now What? (4/16/17)

A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Text:  Matthew 28:1-10

For those of us old enough to remember movie spectaculars like The Greatest Show on Earth and The Ten Commandments, Matthew is the Cecil B. DeMille of the gospels. For younger generations, think George Lucas and Star Wars or Peter Jackson and Lord of the Rings. Only Matthew tells of a great earthquake as an angel of God descends from heaven. This angel, blessed with super powers, rolls back the enormous stone that seals the tomb. And talk about an outfit! His snow-white suit dazzles like lightning. Match that, Superman! Not exactly someone you want to mess with. High drama! Serious spectacle. Academy award worthy special effects. I wonder how some of you young movie makers in the congregation would set up this scene and film it.

Then this superhero angel dude, sitting on that mega stone, the Roman guards knocked unconscious at his feet, has the audacity to say to those two terrified Marys, “Don’t be afraid!” “Oh sure, Gabe. You put on a show like that and we’re not supposed to be afraid.” Shaking like leaves in the early morning breeze, teeth chattering, they back away from the empty tomb and the heavenly hero.

Sorry if this seems over the top. But that’s the problem with looking at a 2000-year old text for the umpteenth time. We’ve heard it all before and it doesn’t really jangle our last nerve in the way it must have for Mary Magdalene and that other Mary. We have to work to slip our feet into their sandals.

Close your eyes for a minute and try to clear away all those sermons and Sunday School lessons and Bible studies you’ve experienced on the Easter events. Imagine yourself as a rather simple peasant woman, who has been drawn into Jesus’ circle by the power in his preaching and teaching, the wonder of his healing and exorcising, the audacity of his hope and vision for a world at peace, the endless compassion and concern for the well-being of all creation, the wondrous love that shown in his eyes. You’ve left everything – family, home, your whole way of life – to follow him. Now he is dead, snatched from you by powerful authority figures you can’t comprehend or combat and cruelly crucified. Didn’t you stand at the foot of the cross, weeping inconsolably, as he drew his last breath and uttered those chilling words, “It is finished.”

These women were simply mourners, come to the tomb to grieve their loss. We don’t practice this much anymore, but I think of my mother and the folk of earlier generations who regularly visited the graves of their dead. They went to mourn at first and, as time passed, to remember. Mary and Mary were there that early morning in an effort to hold on to something that for them had been special, sacred. In spite of all that Jesus may have said to them about his death and resurrection, they were surely not expecting the experience they got.

We just sang those beautiful words from an ancient Latin hymn, translated by John Mason Neal:

That Easter day with joy was bright,
the sun shone out with fairer light,
when to their longing eyes restored,
the glad apostles saw their Lord.

It’s a lovely hymn. It really is. Only it takes away the rough edges, the shock and wonder, the spectacle of that first Easter Day. The experience of that morning must be the kind of scenario Annie Dillard had in mind when she wrote, “It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.” Buckle your seat belts, friends. Something is about to happen that will challenge the work of DeMille, Lucas, and Jackson combined – because this is real. OK, maybe Matthew embellished the story a little but he’s trying to get something across to his first readers, his original community, and now to us, something important, something life-shaping.

On that long-ago morning, something shifted in the universe and life will never be the same again. God said such a powerful “Yes” to life on that day that death is no more, swallowed up in the resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. I know that’s difficult for us to wrap our minds around. Death seems so real, especially to those of us who have encountered it. I don’t mean to make light of death. I only mean to say that, after Easter, we know it has no more power over us than those first century civil and religious authorities had over Jesus. “Death in vain forbids him rise, Christ has opened paradise.” It’s new day for a new way of life.

Two influential thinkers in my own understanding of this day are Dorothee Soelle and James Alison. Towards the end of her book on suffering, in which she has laid bare some of the most horrendous suffering, pain, and death of the 20th century, especially the Holocaust and the Vietnam War, she affirms that, in the midst of it all, in the depths of the very worst, our faith calls us to utter a great “Yes” to life, for that is God’s design and Christ’s way. That is, Jesus comes to show that God’s desire for creation is focused on affirming life, abundant life, at that. If only we could see it, grasp it, embrace it, and carry it out.

Beyond that, James Alison actually argues that “there is no death in God,” that God has neither use nor place for death. It is a striking affirmation that encourages us, even urges us, to let go of any notion that death might have real power in the existence of God, that death would any way have the last word. God is all about life – creating it, blessing it, building it up, generously sharing it. It is in this God that we ultimately live and move and have our being. “Where, O death is now your sting? Where your victory, boasting grave?”

So, I ask this morning, if death, the last enemy is overcome, now what? Don’t get me wrong, I love Easter – the focus on joy, the bright colors, the beautiful flowers, the soaring music, the affirmation of life, but what comes next? After the celebration, the egg hunt, and the brunch, then what? Probably a nap, but, when we wake up, what difference does all this make in our lives? This question has nagged at me all week as I have thought about this sermon for Easter. I think I am especially unsettled by all the trouble and uncertainty in the world around us. Will bombing the hell out of it bring peace and well-being? Will MOAB make anything better? What in the world today is moving us any closer to abundant life? It seems to me that we are headed in the opposite direction on too many fronts. Yes, I know a preacher should never say things like this on Easter, and I’m not going dwell here, but it would be dishonest not to say something. After affirming the greatest truth of our faith tradition, “Now what?” is still a fair question.

Maybe these words from Tom Wright point toward an answer. In commenting on today’s text, he reminds us that “…the crucial thing is that Jesus’ resurrection is not about proving some point, or offering people a new spiritual experience. It is about God’s purpose that must now be fulfilled. {Note the post-Easter “now”.] [The disciples] must see Jesus, but that seeing will be a commissioning to a new work, a new life, a new way of life in which everything he told them will start to come true” (Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part Two, p. 199).

Now what? God’s purpose must now be fulfilled. We look up from our daily grind and we see Jesus, resurrected, the living Christ beckoning us to follow him, back to the place where we started, then charging us to spread out to the ends of the earth. I am reminded of those wise words of T. S. Eliot, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” Is that what the disciples experienced on their return to Galilee?

Is that Christ’s invitation to us on this Easter Sunday, to return home, only to see truly for the first time? This time we have a clearer sense of new life within, a new way of life for all, and new work to be done.  I know Charles Wesley asked us to sing that “love’s redeeming work is done,” and there may be a sense that that is so, but, then again, I think it may only be so as it takes effect in us and shapes our lives.

Now what? The wonderful preacher and writer, Howard Thurman, may be best-known for his poem, “Now the Work of Christmas Begins.” Notice the emphasis again on “now.” With deep apologies to this great man of God, I wonder if we might consider today little paraphrase, “Now the Work of Easter Begins”:

When the angel has returned to heaven,
when the women have delivered their message to the “brothers,’”
when the disciples have followed Christ back to Galilee,

when we have shouted, “He is risen!” and sung our alleluias and eaten our fill,
the work of Easter begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.

May it be so with us. Amen.

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We are a progressive Baptist Church affiliated with the American Baptist Churches, USA. We have been in Palo Alto since 1893. We celebrate our Baptist heritage. We affirm the historic Baptist tenets of: Bible Freedom, Soul Freedom, Church Freedom, Religious Freedom

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