So, I'm thinking that after seeing that video, there really isn't much else that needs to be said, is there? We've sung our traditional Easter hymns; we've practiced the timeless Christian response, Christ is risen...he is risen indeed. And now we've heard the resurrection story told in a unique way. What more could we want?
Not to mention, the title of today's message is: Courage To Tell The Story. Well, folks, trust me, participating in that video took courage...and whole lot of technical expertise from Neal Crouse. I mean, to be videotaped on the spot and know that some snippet of what you said would be used to create a video over which you have no control? That's way too much vulnerability for some of us. Still, these faithful folks courageously participated in spite of any apprehension they may have had. And, I think we will all would agree, it was worth their labor of love.
Rather than have just one person telling the Easter story, it's good to have the whole church tell it. After all...it is our story to share, right? The resurrection is our story of hope...our story of new beginnings, and new life. The empty tomb is our story of promise...the promise that we do not have to remain in our own dead places. Yes church, this is our story to claim...our story to believe...our story to live...and our story to share.
That said, Matthew's version of the Easter story is a little difficult for us to wrap our minds around. The shaking and rattling like an earthquake, flashes of lightening, stones rolling, and something that looks like snow? Well that sounds more like an spring weather forecast in Indiana than our own personal encounters with the holy.
The powerful visual that Matthew creates in this scene is beyond what most of us have ever experienced. It has a cosmic, other-worldliness feel that does not relate to our everyday life. No matter how great our Resurrection fanfare this morning, none of us will ever encounter what Mary Magdalene and the other Mary did on that Easter morning. Most likely we will never see a spunky angel sitting on a stone, nor have we had many occurrences of grabbing the feet of the Risen Christ. Not to mention, if we did, we would probably be afraid to tell anyone about it for fear they would think we were crazy.
Still, the fact that we were not there first-hand does not mean we cannot relate in very real ways to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. For one thing, many of us have experienced the intense grief that these two women felt as they approached the tomb that morning. Although we may not have endured the trauma they did - according to Matthew they were witnesses to the trial, the beating, the crucifixion and the death of Jesus - many of us know what it feels like to lose a loved one. Sometimes quite tragically.
We have endured the pain of having our hearts deeply broken. And we also know what it is like to try to go on in spite of that brokenness. In fact, the faithfulness of these women in the midst of their heartbreak is truly inspiring.
Now, if we are honest with ourselves, many of us also relate to the women in this story in another way as well. We, too, know what it feels like to live in fear and doubt...to wonder if we can really trust God's plans in the midst of our pain.
You see, even though the women knew Jesus had said that the grave could not contain him...and even though they had heard him speak of being raised again...and even though they had even seen Lazarus restored to life...they still came to the grave looking to find Jesus' dead body there. I believe the women were living that all too familiar struggle...looking for a glimmer of light in the midst of a very dark place...trying to trust in the power of goodness when it seems as if evil is clearly in charge. The head knows, but the heart is not quite there yet.
I doubt that I'm alone in saying, I've been that Mary. A lot of us are that Mary. We want to believe that death does not win...but there are tragic days when it sure feels as if it does.
When we see images of children gasping to breathe after having been poisoned with sarin gas...it feels as if evil has won.
When we hear of Congo schools that were so hard-earned being closed due to rebel fighting, it feels as if death is winning.
When the number of overdose deaths continues to rise in nearly every county of our state, it feels as if death has won.
When the need to fight for equality and basic human rights keeps rearing its ugly head, evil seems to be in charge.
The list goes on and on. This may not be the worst times the world has ever seen, but there are days, when the news headlines make us feel as if it is. We know that love wins...we trust that justice and mercy will prevail...yet somewhere in a corner of our heart, is a seed of doubt and we're not sure it's safe to believe.
Now, I'm not saying the women were unfaithful or had doubts about Jesus. I just think that after all they had witnessed, it must have been nearly impossible to be optimistic or hopeful about the situation at hand.
As such, we can appreciate the shock to the women's sensibilities when the angel says, "I know why you're here...you're looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here."
He is not here. Talk about increasing anxiety levels. I'm sure it was almost too much for them to comprehend. However, as the reality begins to register with them...a glimmer of hope emerges. Hope that their beloved Jesus - the Messiah, the Son of God - had defeated death just as promised. Four little words, "He is not here", offered the possibility that there was much, much more to this story!
He is not here...he has been raised...the tomb is empty. A matter of fact message for two faithful women that would eventually become a message of hope for the whole world. Like the dawn of morning, it was a message of light piercing into the darkness, a message that out of every chaos and tragedy, a new order will eventually rise, a message that sin and death are powerless to power of God's love and mercy. It was a message that love always wins over evil, despite appearances to the contrary.
It reminds me of a story from the funeral service for Winston Churchill, which he had planned himself. A single trumpeter stood at the west end of St. Paul's Abby and sounded "Taps" the song that signals dusk...the end of the day...and is often played at military funerals. But after the moment of silence that followed the last note of the song, another trumpeter stood at the east end of St. Paul's, the end that faced the rising sun, and played Reveille, the song of morning and the call to a new day. As Rev. David Lose said of this story, Churchill perceived that Christ's resurrection signals above and beyond all else that our God is a God of new life and never-ending possibility. (workingpreacher.org)
So imagine the possibility that the women heard when the angel said: "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.’"
Actually, I'm not convinced that they would have understood the full significance of the message when they first heard it. They just knew that they had been given an instruction to go tell the story to the others. So they did. Despite the danger of unaccompanied women traveling alone...regardless of the likelihood that no one would believe the word of women...notwithstanding their own their own fear and doubt, they bravely responded to the angel's instruction to go and tell.
Now, to me, that is the definition of courage...the ability to move forward in the face of uncertainty and fear. Or as John Wayne once put it, courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary saddled up anyway and responded to Jesus' death with courage...they responded to news of the resurrection with courage...and they responded to the angel's instruction to go...with courage. And by the way, in doing so, they encountered the Risen Christ.
Is this not a message for us today? When we go with courage...into our fears and our joys...we will encounter the resurrected Christ. When we go with courage to our own Galilee...into places of ministry...when we have courage tell others our stories about Jesus, he will meet us there...in those stories.
Do not be afraid, do not be afraid, do not be afraid.
The good news of Christ's resurrection is not that we are exempt from fears, but that those fears do not have the power to cripple us. We will have challenges, but they do not overcome us. We have moments of anxiety, but they do not define us. We grieve, but not without hope. We live with unknowns, but they do not silence our hope for the future.
Now don't get me wrong, though. Easter people are not freakishly naive. We see the potential for death and destruction in the world. Bad things still happen around us and to us, to our friends and to those we love. We just refuse to let those things be the end of the story. They do not get the last word.
He is not here...the tomb is empty...do not be afraid. It gives us courage to face whatever comes our way...anchored in the promise that God will have the last word, and that word is one of light and life and grace and mercy.
The empty tomb tells the story of God having the last word. It is a story of hope for our lives and for God's world. Moreover, it is a story that, like the women, we are compelled to share with courage and love.
And folks...if you don't think the world is desperate to hear the stories we have to tell, then think about this for a minute. What does it say that 1.2 million people watched a live broadcast of a giraffe having a baby yesterday? No wait, what does it say that more than 5 million people have been checking the live feed over the past two months...some of whom have formed an online community...checking in daily, sharing prayer requests, and exchanging stories of their lives? Seriously, read the live feed comments if you want to see for yourself.
Well, I will tell you what I think it means...I think that people are desperate...desperate to hear or see something that is life-giving and up-lifting. Folks are hungering for a sense of community...to feel connected...to have purpose...to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They are seeking to hear real stories that offer hope.
So, friends, just as the others were huddled waiting for "the next thing"...waiting for someone to give them the "all clear"... or to tell them something hopeful...to reconnect with Jesus...well, I'm telling you, the world is waiting too. Waiting for the church to tell them good news...from this Easter story...and from our own lives. The want to hear that good does win...to know that they have purpose...that they are loved...that others understand their pain...and that the situations of death and darkness in their lives can be resurrected into life-giving ones, filled with light and love.
A few years ago I shared an Easter prayer from author and theologian Brian McClaren. I believe it is worthy of repeating, especially so this year.
For death is not the last word.
Violence is not the last word.
Hate is not the last word.
Money is not the last word.
Intimidation is not the last word.
Political power is not the last word.
Condemnation is not the last word.
Betrayal and failure are not the last word.
No, each of them are like rags in a tomb.
And from that tomb,
Beloved Easter people, this is the story the world is desperate to hear. Beloved Church, together, let us have courage to tell it...with our words, our actions and our lives.