A sermon preached on Easter Sunday, April 8, 2012 based upon Matthew 28:1 – 20.
You may be aware that the four Gospels vary a good deal in the details they tell regarding what happened on that first Easter morning.
There is one detail, however, that is consistent in the stories told by all four Gospels, and it is this: that it was women, not men, who first came to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body, where they found the stone rolled away and Jesus’ body missing, and that these women came away from that tomb convinced that Jesus was alive again.
Now this is a curious detail for them all to agree upon, and one that if you understand what it means points to something very real and very powerful happening back there – that the story wasn’t merely a fairy tale conjured up by the followers of Jesus in order to keep his movement going.
You see, in those days, women were distinctly second-class citizens – slaves really. They were nobodies; invisible people in the eyes of the justice system. Women in those days weren’t permitted to be witnesses in a court of law, because, being “only” women, their witness was considered unreliable.
Consequently, if the story of the resurrection of Jesus were simply a fairy tale manufactured to promote the movement, then those doing the fabricating would surely have had men be the ones who discovered the tomb to be empty, in order to properly impress a rigidly sexist world.
So the fact that the testimony remains consistent in all of the four Gospels – that it was indeed women who were the first witnesses to the resurrection – this fact argues compellingly that the story was based upon a real experience that the women had that morning when they went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body.
The invisible women refuse to stay invisible or be silenced; they know the truth of what they have experienced, a truth that has called them from death and despair to life and hope.
Now when you go beyond what the four Gospels have in common, you soon discover a good deal of variety in the details told by the Gospel writers as to what took place on the first Easter.
In some cases, these variations of the story may not be historically accurate, but in all instances, the Gospel writers are trying to make a point in regards to the meaning of Christ’s resurrection, an event they were absolutely convinced had happened.
When, for instance, as we heard in our Gospel story this morning, Matthew alone tells us how the stone got rolled back – that there was a mighty earthquake and that a powerful angel who shown like lightning descended and rolled back the stone, and that in seeing this, the guards who had been stationed their by anxious authorities shook with fear, becoming like dead men, and that then a conspiracy immediately was undertaken to cover up Jesus’ resurrection – well, this may very well be a flight of imagination on Matthew’s part, but it is a flight intended to make a very important point.
That point being this: that the resurrection of Jesus threatened the powers of this world that oppress and dehumanize people.
In the kingdoms of this world certain people are always viewed as being expendable.
The Roman Empire was actually more humane than a lot of empires that have ruled in human history – but the Romans knew well how to exercise violence in order to hold on to their power. The cross, their common method of execution, was specifically designed to humiliate and to extinguish life in a very gruesome and public way, so that the rest of those subject to its power would be properly intimidated. The message was unmistakable: “Don’t mess with Rome’s authority, or we will make you disappear as well, never to be seen or heard from again.”
But if the life of one of those whom the Romans had made disappear were to suddenly re-appear — and not just any life, but one that had stood up to those very threats – not in the name of some other kingdom of this world — but rather by a higher authority – God’s very kingdom in which all the supposed expendable people are cherished – well, then, the empire with blood on their hands would have reason to tremble and quake.
The man who, it was testified, came back from the dead had sent disciples out into the world proclaiming God’s kingdom, telling them, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
In other words, it is not possible for you to ever truly become invisible, no matter what the powers of this world try to do to you.
In the words of Rowan Williams, “Here and now, God holds on to the lives of all the departed – including the lives that have been wasted, violently cut short, damaged by oppression. All have worth in his sight.”
So the news of Jesus’ resurrection was truly disturbing to the powers of this world. Jesus was said to be the “first born to be raised” – meaning, all the others who had been made to disappear would also be re-appearing in God’s good time. All the more reason for the empire to tremble and quake.
There are plenty of places in this world where people can still be routinely made to disappear by violence, when the kingdoms of this world judge this necessary for them to hold onto their power.
But wherever the Gospel of the Resurrection is proclaimed, the powers of this world are called to account.
A generation ago in El Salvador – Norma’s homeland – thousands of people simply disappeared when the death squads aligned with the government would come by night to carry them away, never to be seen again – their bodies never found.
In response to these atrocities, the faithful established a tradition in the midst of the celebration of the mass. When the priest came to the place in the liturgy where he says, “And so, with your people on earth and all the company of heaven…” he would pause in order to read aloud the names of those who the regime had made disappear. Following each name, somebody in the congregation would stand up and shout out “Presente!” “Here!” And by so doing the power of the oppressors was defied, and the reality of God’s kingdom asserted.
We are fortunate to live in a society that isn’t in the habit of executing those who challenge the government, thank God.
Though such overt brutality doesn’t take place in this country, America is not the kingdom of God – which means there are more subtle, covert forms of brutality that dehumanize people.
In our society there are countless people who are essentially viewed as expendable, and rendered invisible.
We have an economic system that tolerates 8% unemployment, with so many more underemployed. We have an economic system that works to the benefit of the richest members of our society who steadily get richer and richer, while millions others are laid off, losing their homes, disappearing in the ranks of expendable people. The county we live in, — Morris County – is so geared towards affluence that many full time jobs simply don’t pay enough for people to either buy or rent a home.
Most of us have seen or read the powerful play, “Death of a Salesman”, which was written back in 1949 but is now back on Broadway. It describes what this disappearance is like for a man named Willie Loman, who aspired to succeed in the competitive post-war business world, buying into the lie that his value depended upon his success, only to fall into the great abyss in middle age as he loses his job and his self-respect. There’s this classic speech his wife makes to her sons as they witness the demise of their father:
“I don’t say he’s a great man. Willie Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.”
Yes, attention must be paid.
And the resurrection of Jesus declares that attention is paid, that God pays attention to all those who would be forgotten, and that we are called to do likewise.
We live in a society in which people are readily seduced into possessing many things as a substitute for loving contact with other human beings. Increasingly people live more and more isolated from one another. At the same time the advances in health care and medicine make it possible for people to live longer than ever. This is not always a good thing. As people age, their isolation often increases, and they become those who are forgotten – invisible – long before they die.
Tony Campolo tells a story about receiving a phone call from his mother telling him that Mrs. Smith, the sweet old lady who lived across the street, had passed. Could he please attend the funeral to show his respects for Mrs. Smith? He said, “Sure, Mom.”
The day of the funeral Tony was running late, arriving at the funeral home just as the service was starting. He hurried into the room, and immediately sensed that something wasn’t quite right. The place was empty except for one old lady sitting up front and the minister taking his place at the podium. More disconcerting yet was the fact that the old man in the casket didn’t look a thing like Mrs. Smith. He was about to make a quiet retreat, when the old woman turned to look back at him, saying, “You were my husband’s friend?”
He felt he had no choice. “Yeah,” he said, “He was my friend. He was a nice guy;” sitting down in the seat next to the old woman.
When the service was over, the old lady turned to him with tears in her eyes and said, “You’ll go with me to the cemetery?”
“Of course,” said Tony. What else was there to say? So he road in the limousine beside the old lady for what turned out to be a 45 minute ride to the cemetery.
When it was all over, and they were finally back at the funeral home, Tony felt obliged to tell the old lady the truth.
“I’m sorry, Maam, but I gotta be honest with you. I didn’t really know your husband.”
“I know,” she said softly, looking into his eyes. “I know. But you’ll never know what it meant for me to have you with me today.”
Attention must be paid.
The resurrection of Jesus is a testimony to God’s determination that no one should disappear; no one forgotten.
I want you to listen to something for a moment.
(Play beginning of the recording, “Jesus’ Blood,” by Gavin Bryars – an old man’s voice singing, “Jesus’ blood hasn’t failed me yet, hasn’t failed me yet, hasn’t failed me yet. There’s one thing I know, that he loves me so.” Reduce volume, but continue playing the loop of the man singing.)
A British Composer by the name of Gavin Bryars was involved in project back in the 1970s in which people went out into a particularly rough neighborhood in London to interview and record people living on the streets. Sometimes they would sing bits of song they knew, as did the old man who sang the chorus of his favorite hymn.
In the eyes of the world, people like this old man are the nobodies, invisible and forgotten. Shortly after the recording was made, the man died. (Abruptly stop the recording.) If there was a funeral for this old man, it is not likely that there were many in attendance.
Bryars was moved by the sound of the old man singing the old hymn, finding it enchanting and haunting, and over the years he held on to the recording.
Over time an idea began to take hold in Bryars to record man’s voice singing as a loop, just as you heard, and to gradually add the sound of a beautiful symphony playing behind the voice. And so he did, with the full piece lasting 114 minutes.
Listen to a bit of what it sounds like.
(Play Track #2, volume up. After one verse…)
Now let’s add our voices to the man’s voice. Let’s sing along.
(Congregation sings along for a verse.)
The one who was raised from the dead was the one who also said, whenever one of the forgotten ones are found, then all the angels in heaven throw a big, boisterous party to celebrate, and I’m sure the there’s plenty of music and lots of singing.
No matter what the powers of this world may try to do to you to make you disappear, know that the angels in heaven are singing along with you, and in the sight of God, you cannot disappear.
And you are called to sing with the angels for every one of the little ones of Jesus.