24 March 2008

Going Ahead of You

Matthew 28:1-10
by Rev. Chris Shelton
March 23, 2008 - Easter

The Easter Season overflows with expectations. It always has, and it always will. We all gather at Easter, largely because we expect the joyous music and the happy hymns. We come expecting to see our dear friends and family, expecting that most everyone will be dressed their best and happy to be here. We come expecting flowers fresh and in bloom. We come expecting a day of feasting and friendship. We come expecting Spring…as it waits just around the corner.

Easter has always started with expectations…so many years ago, when dawn first lit the skies and the women journeyed to the tomb, they, too, went to that graveyard with many expectations. They surely expected that their own sadness might get the better of them, and so they traveled together for support. They expected that they would find the body of their dearest friend and teacher—still bloodied, but now in the tomb. They expected harassment from the soldiers that guarded the sepulcher. They expected to use the last spices and oils their money could buy. They expected many long days of mourning. They expected ridicule and shame. They expected that their hopes had finally been dashed on the hard rocks of life's chaos. And, they expected that they would have to roll a mighty stone away.

Yes, the story begins with many expectations. The women rise with the sun expecting everything to be the way it's always been. At some level, they rely on it, we all do – the safety of the familiar. Things are what they are. Someone dies, they stay dead. A movement fails, it's over. Evil crushes goodness, goodness stays crushed. The women come to the tomb to mourn, to finish embalming the body, but, as the gospel tells us, the tomb is empty. And they are, to say the least, perplexed.

Don't you hate it when life brings you those unexpected surprises? You're gliding along smoothly and suddenly you hit a roadblock you didn't expect, a detour; the bridge is out and you can't get where you thought you were going. It's disorienting when something happens that you can't control, or you don't see coming. They didn't expect the Messiah to be a carpenter's boy. They didn't expect him to challenge the authorities. They didn't expect him to heal the sick and embrace the outsider. They didn't expect Jesus to end up on a cross. They didn't expect to find the tomb empty. And now the rug is pulled out – they don't know what in the world might happen next.

The Good News begins, not when our expectations are met, but when our every human expectation is shattered and left in the tomb.

Now, God has known the stubbornness of humanity for a long, long time, friends. God knows we tend to be a trifle dense – and goodness knows the good Lord is aware that sometimes we just don't get it. When things change, we too easily find ourselves paralyzed in fear or doubt or confusion. And so, in this story, God sends an unexpected but welcome messenger. An angel sits atop the stone saying to them:

"There's nothing to fear here. You are looking for Jesus, the One they nailed to a cross. He isn't here! He is risen, just as he said. Come, look at the place where he had been placed… Now, don't stay here – go quickly and tell his disciples. He is risen from the dead. He's going on ahead of you!"

And so they go, and on the way, again unexpectedly, they see Jesus. And though they try to stop there, he urges them on, saying, "Go and tell…" And so they go on some more, and they tell the good news. And Jesus comes among them again, saying to them all, "Go and live the story, in all the world…"

Just when they expected that the story was over, they are commissioned to set out on a journey where expectations are no more.

Sisters and brothers – it's the Season of Resurrection. I know you've all come here with lovely expectations. We all expect the music and the flowers and the friendship, and that's all wonderful. Even still, I'm here to tell you that Resurrection isn't about expectations. You may have expected that you came here to hear about Jesus' Resurrection – and you did. But, my guess is that most of you have heard that part before. Perhaps you didn't expect that this story is, in the end, not so much about Jesus' Resurrection as it is a story about our own.

It's Easter – and its time to get up and come out of the tomb. In the Reformed tradition, every Sunday is Easter Sunday – every Sunday we celebrate the resurrection – and so every Sunday we ought to be leaving our tombs farther and farther in the dust. It's time to leave our expectations behind. Jesus has gone on ahead of us, and is yearning for us to catch up.

The resurrection to which Easter calls us – our own – requires that we prepare to find God where God is, by opening ourselves to the world around us with seeing eyes and listening ears.

At the tomb, the women were frightened, not of death – we know death. What frightened them was the unknown -- the prospect of new life. At Easter, Jesus comes to us not out of the tomb—for no one ever saw him alive again in a tomb—but Jesus comes to us fully raised up in ministry, in identification with our common life, and in solidarity with the oppressed—moving us and everything together towards a human future. And he speaks his gospel: Do not be afraid. Go and tell.

That means that we must be prepared to be surprised by God in strange places, like death valleys, and graveyards, and execution chambers, and prison cells and beds of pain, and mud huts, and halls of justice, and bars, and back alleys, the hell holes of war, the sanctuaries of peace, the caves of fear, the pits of depression and the trails of tears.

That means that God will meet us in ways and in places we never thought we'd see and through words we never thought we'd hear. We must allow others – even those whom we have until now refused to consider – to open our hearts to things we do not expect.

It means putting down the social fears that insulate us from one another. It requires that we clean out from our vocabulary the words that speak of our contempt for "liberals," our frustration with "radicals," and our disdain for "conservatives." To live a resurrection life presumes that we will reach out to each other – to immigrants and those of any color; to the strangers, the prisoners, and the poor; to the different and indifferent all around us; to gay and straight, to able and disabled, to the strong and the weak, the far and the near – so that we can see visions with them; and cry in pain and for justice with them; and see what stones we can move from the front of their tombs.

To live a resurrection life means we reach out with compassion, kindness, humility and quiet strength. It means we are quick to offer forgiveness to others, it means we act with love more often than we could ever imagine toward more people that we would ever expect.

To live a resurrection life means we are willing to let our expectations rest in the tomb, following God wherever God leads…

Ultimately, Easter is not simply a time of celebration. It is that, but it is also a time of decision. Are we serious about living this resurrection life, and acting like it?

Perhaps our eyes need to be open for the angels which still sit atop life's many tombs. Perhaps our ears need to be open as they tell us yet again – Jesus is not here, but is going on ahead of us.

The promise is true and the news is good. Christ is Risen! And he still goes on ahead of us. Dear friends, let us leave behind our own tombs and follow. Amen.

Note: Particular thanks to Sr. Joan Chittister for her inspiring words in "Easter Calls us to Resurrection-Our Own." (www.bnet.com, April 2001.)

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