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Sermon from the Rev. Joseph H. Hensley, Jr., rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017
(Sermon text as prepared)
Welcome happy morning and happy Easter! It is a joy to be together again on this Easter morning to hear the good news of the Gospel that Christ is risen and to hear it this morning in the version from the evangelist known as “Matthew.” Mathew’s version, unlike any of the other 3 Gospels in the Bible mentions an earthquake. The earth shakes as the angel of the Lord comes and rolls away the stone. The tomb is opened. Jesus is gone. Christ is risen. And that news has been shaking and quaking us ever since.
Now when I say, “earthquake,” especially in this place, many of you will think back to August 2011 when there was serious damage done, including to this old church building. I, myself, on that day was in a hospital in Chapel Hill, NC with my wife for a scheduled pregnancy check-up; and we felt the tremors. Disconcerting to say the least. Earthquakes are scary. They make us wonder if the world is going to fall apart? What’s going to happen next? Is everything going to be all right?
The Easter earthquake is different. It’s not a sign that things are falling down. It’s a sign that things are being raised up. For the evangelist Matthew, mentioning the earthquake in his Gospel was a way for him to tie the resurrection of Jesus to signs in the heavens and in the earth that were portents of the end times. Matthew is always trying to connect Jesus to the scriptures that came before and the prophecies of what is to come. I think, though, that this earthquake may mean more than just a sign. I like to think of it as Mother Earth, herself, shaking herself with a trembling “alleluia!” Shaking herself with joy that death could not contain love. That a tomb could not contain the peace of God. Mother Earth shook with joy that even though we did our worst to Christ, God’s love and life were triumphant. And that still shakes us and quakes us to our very core.
All of us have things that shake us in our lives. Earthquakes, literal and figurative, in our lives rock us and make us wonder if it’s going to be alright. Easter does not take those earthquakes away. Matthew talks about, after the passage that we just heard, those guards who were watching over the tomb, who had been sent there to make sure that nobody stole away the body of Jesus, but when the angel came they fell down like dead men, they woke up later. They went to the religious authorities and told them what had happened. And do you know what the authorities did? They paid the guards off. They told them to go out and tell everyone that the resurrection was a big hoax. Tell everyone it was not true. The Easter earthquake doesn’t take away the corruption of our world. The Easter earthquake doesn’t take away the cruelty that we can inflict on each other. It doesn’t take away the hatred that we can feel against one another. It doesn’t take away the disasters and the difficulties of our lives. It doesn’t take away death. But…that Easter earthquake, it shakes everything up. It shakes it up in a way that nothing is the same. It shakes it up in a way that the stones which keep us trapped in our tombs. The Easter earthquake shook the world in such a way that the things which were intimidating us, those “strong men” blocking our path, are knocked out and we can go free.
So that Easter earthquake, shook up the cruelty of the cross. That cruelty was cracked open so that the risen Christ can heal our wounds and our brokenness, heal our violence. Jesus doesn’t come out of the tomb breathing vengeance, saying “I’ll get you back for everything you did to me.” He comes out of the tomb ready to love and to send his disciples out into the world to share good news, hope and peace and love. The Easter earthquake shook up the seduction of hatred, so that we don’t become haters, so that we don’t even hate the haters. When Christ came out of the tomb loving and not hating, the Easter earthquake shook us to our core, that we might learn to love our neighbors, even those who are difficult to love. That we might learn to love ourselves. The Easter earthquake shook disaster, it shook the devastations of our world and our lives: the difficulties, the bad decisions, the diseases, the deaths and losses. It shook the disasters, both natural and human made. Sometimes the earth shakes because of violence that we do to one another. The Easter earthquake shook all these, not to take them away, but to create room and opportunities to love and to care and to serve. We can love in the midst of disaster. And that Easter earthquake shook even death itself. It shook the finality of death so that instead of fearing death as a termination, we see death as a transformation, knowing that life is changed not ended. And that gives us motivation to love even more, every day with every breath.
That Easter earthquake shook the world, shook everything, and we are still feeling the aftershocks that spread through the whole world, the aftershocks that have lasted thousands of years. We still feel them. In actual earthquakes there is an urgency to move, an urgency to get out of danger to a safe place. The Easter earthquake also has an urgency and a motivation to move. The word that appears over and over in this Gospel is “Go.” The Easter earthquake is moving us to run like Mary Magdalene and the other Mary who came to see the tomb early that Easter morning. Those women came not knowing what they were going to find, but when the earthquake came and the guards fell over like dead men, those women stood their ground! Those women were sent as the first apostles to the apostles. They were sent as the first messengers, even though in ancient times the testimony of a woman witness was not considered as valuable as the testimony of a man. God was shaking things up! The angel sent the women, the women, to share the good news. Sent them running, the text tells us. Running with fear and joy, with awe and wonder and excitement, they ran to share that good news that love conquers all.
So I have been pondering this week the great theological mystery that is the Easter Sunday egg hunt. It is connected to this idea of running. I try, each year, to think about why we have the egg hunt. One year I said it was about the sweetness of God’s love and finding the sweetness of Easter. Another year I talked about cracking open the wonder and grace and mystery of Easter. There’s the excitement of cracking open the eggs to see what is inside. Jesus cracked open the tomb, and so on. This year I had a new image, that of the children lined up outside the graveyard gate, and they are ready to go in to find the eggs. They have been told not to push or shove, not to trample the flowers. Make sure everyone gets some eggs. Then whoever is in charge says, ‘Go!’ and they just stream into the cemetery and it’s glorious. They go with such urgency to find those little treasures, and that urgency is the urgency of Easter. That’s the urgency with which Mary and Mary ran to tell the disciples the good news that Christ is risen. We, on this Easter, are called to run with that kind of urgency, to seek the treasure that is our inheritance as the saints in light. The treasure that death and cruelty and disaster and hatred do not need to intimidate us or entomb us or command us. The treasure that lasts through any earthquake, because Christ is risen. I pray that we feel that urgency of the children seeking treasure, to share this hope with the world, that Christ is risen. To share this treasure and hope, that love has not removed our suffering, but love has mastered our suffering. May we go, may we run with that urgency to find and share that treasure. And as we run, may we feel Earth’s alleluias shaking and quaking under our feet.