First Congregational United Church of Christ

2810 West 7th Street, Hastings, NE 68901


Following Instructions

Easter Sermon, April 16, 2017


Matthew 27:50-66, 28:1-10 

He Is Risen!  He Is Risen Indeed!

Let us give thanks for the all-encompassing love shown by God through the Risen Christ!   Pray with me…


I’m breaking a few ministry rules this morning.  Typically, the only scripture ever read on Easter morning – Resurrection Morning – is that of the resurrection.  The talk of death is left to Good Friday.  Scripture on Resurrection Day always begins with the women, walking to the tomb at dawn, and discovering the empty tomb.  In the Gospel of John, the stone is already rolled away when then arrive, and the women carry with them spices with them, clearly with the purpose to anoint Jesus’ body.  In the gospel of Mark, the women run from the tomb in fear – and that is the abrupt ending of his account. 


But that is not Matthew’s account. Every gospel has slightly different accounts of the resurrection.  I broke this rule today because I wanted you to really hear the Gospel of Matthew.


In his gospel, Matthew is proclaiming that the divide between Heaven and Earth has been crossed. When Jesus dies, there is a tear in the fabric that separates God’s realm from our realm.  The temple cloth was ripped in two, the earth shakes, and the dead arise. It is terrifying enough that even a Roman Centurion, those that just moments before were just mocking and harassing Jesus, is persuaded that something different is happening.  He exclaims, ‘Truly, this IS God’s son!’  But some people are not afraid. Some people have heard, and believe, and are just following instructions. 


Late last summer, just before coming to Hastings, I helped my cousin cross something off of her bucket list; we took a Trapeze class. Yes, in the list of all the crazy things available in the big city, trapeze class is one of those things.  In fact, I have nieces who take classes in circus arts pretty regularly in Boston.  But trapeze class - for me, in this body, at this age, with my occasional fear of heights - was not something I had ever considered.  But, I’m never one to pass up an experience if it’s affordable, so we proceeded to the NY Trapeze School Chicago on the lakefront and paid for our 2 hours of instruction in flying trapeze.

The craziest thing about trapeze class was the way your disbelief blended with fear and adrenaline – and yet, required continued courage.  Unlike skydiving – a one-time jump, - you had to act continually if you were going to succeed. You just had to push through that fear and get up again, and again. 


First, there was the ladder into the sky.  You climbed up, and up, and up, to a small-ish platform far far above the ground.  The first two times you climb this ladder, they secure your harness with ropes – after that, you are on your own.  After about 5 times topping that ladder, with my hamstring muscles screaming and soaked with adrenaline, I almost didn’t go back up. 


Next, while you are standing on an unguarded platform 22 feet off the ground, you have to move to the front and hang your toes off the front edge to grab the trapeze bar, and stand in that stretched, tense, awkward position for what feels like an eternity while the sentry behind you secures your harness and your ‘catch’ – the other person involved in this equation – times their swinging to yours.


Third, they ask you to bend your knees and jump.  This was really the moment of truth, each and every single time.  They would call “Hup Hup” and on the second one, you were expected to plunge off the platform and towards the net at the speed that your body determined.  And that’s where you felt it.  That incredible drag deep in your gut as the trapeze dipped to it’s lowest point, and then pulled you back upward.  You would not BELIEVE the power of centrifugal force when you are swinging 16 feet in the air.  I mean, we’ve all accepted that gravity exists. But I tell you, I didn’t have any idea what it really felt like until I was desperately trying to hold onto that crossbar. A few times, I let go.  Once I let go at the end of the arch with my knees up, and nearly came down on my head, which could have broken my neck if it wasn’t for some masterful maneuvering of the guy running my harness. That’s the other part of centrifugal force.  It spins you with the slightest movement.


Anyways, it takes you a bit to start to read the arch, and when you are faced with that much adrenaline your mind kind of goes numb. There’s an instructor standing on the ground, barking out commands.  “Forward. Back. Forward. Look up. Knees up. Release.  Stretch. Smile. Drop.”  His commands are timed, and if you can fight through your nerves enough to listen, he will help you get to completion.  But, as so often happens to those in his class, either his words don’t penetrate your brain, or you are just not ready to trust anything in the midst of all your fear.


The Angel in our gospel says, “don’t be afraid. Don’t YOU be afraid.”  He says this to the women, while the guards from Pilate quake and shake and fall over as if they were dead.


Unique to the gospel of Matthew, the chief priests ask that the tomb be guarded throughout the night.  Only in the gospel of Matthew do the ruling powers – the priests and Pilate – make sure to guard the tomb, lest the body be stolen away to fuel the Jesus movement that has captured the belief of so many.  They seal the tomb and post a centurion to guard the tomb through the night.


Matthew knows that the power of the state authorities is no match for God.  The state, so threatened by the teachings that there is no division between us, that there is no hierarchy among us, that no religious law that keeps us from being in God’s community together, is scandalized. The authorities are outraged.  And they are scared.  They are so scared of that truth, of that freedom, of the love that underscores those teachings, that they have done what Earthly authorities do.  The state has reverted to the usual tactics; monitoring and reporting. Threats and intimidation.  Incentives and betrayal.  Capture and detainment.  Trial and verdict.  And, finally, violence.  This is the toolbox of Imperial power.  Power will always work to reassert its power.


The state has employed all the tools at its disposal to prevent others from risking the same fate. And then, even though they’ve won, the earthly authorities stand by to guard their triumph.  They stand by to guard their superior power.


And yet, the earth shakes.  The curtain tears. The dead rise, and the instruments of the state quake in their boots. 


When you’ve put all your faith in your superior force, losing control will shake your foundations. So of course, the guards are terrified, and fall over as if dead.  But the women – the women are not afraid. 


The women in Matthew’s gospel have heard Jesus, and their faith leads them.  At dawn, they are heading towards the tomb – but unlike in John’s version, they are not going with oils and spices. They aren’t going to anoint the body.  They aren’t going to make sure it’s secure.  They aren’t hiding out in an upper room, where the disciples are.  They aren’t hiding behind armed guards. They are going in search of Jesus.  They heard him tell that he would be raised, and they believed.  They aren’t on steady ground, but they have come to see for themselves.


On the Trapeze, swinging through the air, if you are still functioning, if you can hear through the haze adrenaline and fear, all you can do is listen to instructions.  I think about this when I think about these women, moving through the drag and pull of their grief to the tomb. Following instructions. Walking to the tomb.   To come and see, for themselves.


Hup. Hup. Jump. Forward. Back. Forward.  … Knees Up.  Release hands. Stretch. Look up. Hands out.  Smile.  Drop.


For that moment, suspended in mid-air, that suspended moment of disbelief, of complete uncertainty, when everything in your experience is upside down, you look up and wonder – what the heck am I doing?  Where is the ground?  How will I survive this?


When the earth shakes once again, and the angel appears, the guards are terrified, but the women are not.  The angel knows why they have come, and confirms their belief.  “He has been raised, as he said.”  Not only have the women been listening to Jesus, and understood him, but they are also acting on their faith.  They have come to see for themselves.


Everything in these women’s experience dictates a certain order.  There is the sky, this is the ground, and there is the tomb.  People die, and they are gone. They go into the tomb, and then they are buried. And the grief pulls and drags you down.   But for a moment, they are suspending their disbelief, moving through their grief, finding their courage to go and see for themselves.


And then, flying through the air on the Trapeze, suddenly, you are looking someone straight in the eyes.  There are hands on your wrists, clasping.   And you are safe, caught.  Swinging through the air.  Drop averted. Death defeated.  You grab to hold on, and feel the exhilaration and wonder ripple through you.


And they find the tomb empty.  A flash a lightning, and angel speaks, and they are caught.  The gravity of their grief is suspended.  The world order is turned upside-down.  The state has no power over God, who will catch them if they only trust.


In their wonder and exhilaration, the women run to find the disciples, to tell them that the world is not as it would seem.  Like an earthquake, everything is upended.  Everything is rearranged.


The women in Matthew’s gospel are the first to see the world through God’s eyes.   In the haze of their grief, they push through to remember the instructions, as he said.  Come and see.  Third Day. He will rise.


And they jump.  They take a leap of faith.


Today, on Resurrection Day, we are invited to come and see the world through God’s eyes. Because of today, Resurrection Day, we can give love with abandon, because God’s love cannot be contained, guarded, or suppressed.  Today there is no divide between Heaven and Earth.  We can find courage to peer into the tomb that we fear, because fear has no power over God.   We are invited to trust in faith will lead us to the Risen Christ. He will meet us in Galilee, where the work of healing, and teaching, and raising will continue.  God will continue to abide with us.


In their joyful rush to the disciples, the women meet Jesus, who greets them.  The Matthew passage is very anticlimactic; Jesus simply says ‘Greetings’ in our English translation. But in Greek, to say ‘greetings’ is as if to say, “glad tidings”, as if to say, “rejoice”.  Jesus appears before his most fervent believers with the words, “Rejoice.”  And with outstretched hands and suspended disbelief, they bend and grasp his feet.  Look Up. And Smile. They have been caught, their grief has dropped away, and they are saved.


On Easter, in the presence of the Risen Christ, we greet a world upended, and we rejoice. We rejoice that the world is rearranged, re-ordered, re-valued.  A world where love reigns.  A world where we can trust we will be caught.  Everything is made new. Absolute fear has been transformed. We can have courage to walk through life without fear, trusting in God’s commands:


Love one another, as if there’s no divide between us, because you are part of God’s beloved community. 


And then, we will rise. Thanks be to God.