April 16, 2017
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
When We’ve Done This Before…
It might be the music. Or family tradition. Or the beauty of the day. We might come to church on Easter because we always come to church. Or we might be here because this is the day to try church and see what it’s like. There are dozens of reasons why a person might come to church on Easter, but I’m pretty sure nobody is here to find out what happens in the story. Spoiler alert: Christ is risen. He is risen, indeed. Hallelujah. We know where the plot of the Gospel is going. We have done this before…
There might be dozens of reasons why you decided to come to church this morning; I’m pretty sure none of them are to find out whether or not Jesus got up from the dead. I did not come here today seeking information. I’m here because my faith is longing for the wonder of the story. I want to feel something —like the breath of the Holy Spirit in my own body. I don’t just want to hear them say the Hallelujahs; I want to believe that they’re true. I need to hear the resurrection story this morning because it does something to me. It’s not that this time, I might finally get it. But this time, the Gospel might get me. It might get you.
So for all the reasons why you decided to show up, I’m going to venture that one of them is because you have come here needing a miracle and nothing less. Look, you and I know there’s a real risk you could sing the same Easter hymns, and hear the same promise, and go back out the same door you came in because we’ve done this before. There is also the sparkling possibility that this time, who knows what could happen…
This is what’s at stake for us, and I think there might have been the same risk for the writer of the Gospel of Matthew. See this book was probably written fifty to sixty years after Jesus was crucified. The early Christians were already telling the story of the resurrection; Paul was already sending his letters. The people who first show up to listen to the Gospel of Matthew already know were the plot is heading. So the question becomes, is the storyteller going to get it right?
Here we have arrived at the biggest scene, the climax of the narrative, the purpose of our faith —is the author going to do it justice? Will his version summon the stars to their singing, and deploy the heavenly host all gleaming with light, the truth of the Gospel pulsing in the foundation of the earth, so simply hearing the story makes your stomach quiver with the rumble of the timpani?
Thankfully, the answer is yes. The Gospel writer spares no expense when it comes to special effects. If the early Christians were standing there, listening to this, hoping to be mesmerized and convicted, I’m pretty sure they were not disappointed.
To begin with, the writer of Matthew sprinkles foreshadowing into his telling of Jesus’ crucifixion. When Jesus breathed his last breath, the curtain in the temple tore in two, the earth shook and the rocks were split. The tombs were opened and the bodies of the saints were raised. Oh and by the way, the people in the city began seeing those who had been dead. The story continues by describing Jesus’ burial in the tomb and issuing the call to deploy troops to seal the stone of the tomb, then guard the sealed tomb with your life. Let no one show up and cause trouble!
Today our scripture begins when the women show up. Right away there’s another earthquake! This time an angel whooshes down from heaven like lightening. He promptly rolls away the stone, sits on it, and launches into the speech he rehearsed. The soldiers guarding the tomb fall down in fear. So the angel tells the women, “Do not be afraid. You have come to see Jesus, but he is not here. He has been raised like he said. Come, see the place where he lay, but then go tell his disciples what happened. He’s on his way to Galilee and you will see him there.” The women left the tomb with fear and great joy and ran to tell the disciples.
I can imagine hearing the early Christians break into relieved cheering. The author got it right! There was an earthquake and a luminous angel, and our Lord got up from the dead! Play the timpani and release our Hallelujahs. God knows we need the bursting of the rocks, and the fire of the Spirit, and the singing of the stars. Don’t skimp on the glory O God! See we are hungry for a miracle.
Then against the glittering glory of heaven coming to earth, there are these women. As the first day was dawning, the women got up to go and see the tomb. In Matthew’s version, they don’t go to prepare the body. They show up to see what happened, or what might… And you know they’ve done this before.
Throughout Jesus’ ministry, the women went with him, providing for him. They are there for the healings and the miracles; they are there for his prophesy about being raised from the dead. The women followed Jesus to the cross, and they are there when he dies. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb when Jesus was buried inside. They keep coming back, ready to help, wanting to see.
You and I know these women are the foremothers of our faith. They get up early and show up on the worst day. They let the angel finish his message, then they go and do what needs to be done. This is the work.
This is serving the funeral lunch and staying late to wash the dishes. It’s stocking the food pantry Friday after Friday, and folding the bulletins, and changing the diapers, and counting the money, and hauling the trash to the dumpster. We know what we’re doing because we have done this before. As though maybe it’s not just the earthquake and the glowing angel that bring about the miracle.
In all the glittering glory of heaven coming to earth, it could be easy to overlook the people who keep showing up to do the unglorious work of our faith; it could be easy to overlook the work. But I’ll tell you, the people who have done this before might know a little something about seeing the miracle.
Now it’s true. The words “We have done this before” are not always life-giving. These are the same words that could veto the chance to try something new. “We’ve done this before” are the words that could require us to keep doing the same event every year even after it’s outlived its light. These are valid concerns.
But what if. What if the faithful rhythm of our faith, the songs we’ve already sung, the stories we’ve already heard, what if this familiar work is surreptitiously harboring the sparkling possibility that this time, who knows what could happen? Routine can be what gives way to wonder. Our faithful remembering is exactly what turns into our fearless imagining. We just have to see it.
Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh makes this exquisite observation: “The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on this green earth.”
See there’s the miracle of praying to God and having the test come back cancer free. And there’s the miracle of being half way through chemo and deciding to go ahead and go back tomorrow.
There’s the miracle of our LORD and Savior getting up from the dead. All the glittering glory of heaven crashing into earth! And there’s the miracle of the man who gets up out of bed on the day after his wife’s funeral.
These days, the world is desperate for a miracle. Here we are sending bombs to make the earthquake so no one can ignore our show of force. We’re still at war against drugs, against terror, against actual human people. We’re still paying for wars in every way imaginable. For peacemaking to make a meaningful difference, you know that would take a miracle and nothing less. So it’s a good thing we’re on the lookout. It’s a good thing we keep showing up to watch for the miracle because that’s how we’ll see it.
I imagine the early Christians gathered around listening to this version of the resurrection, hoping the Gospel writer will get it right. The first eight verses provoke their relieved praise. There was an earthquake, and an angel, and the women showed up and got the news. If I were in charge of editing the book of Matthew, I might suggest making this the conclusion: “Let the women go in terror and in joy to tell the good news to the disciples.” Hear the thrilling resolution of this final chord.
Except this is not the ending. Out of nowhere, Jesus appears to the women: “Hey, you guys!” They fall down and worship him. Jesus says, “I need your help with something,” and he tells them to go to Galilee where he will meet up with the disciples. This is a terrific encore. Can you picture the audience applauding, pretty sure all that’s left is the final final curtain call, when Jesus turns to the audience and says, “Actually, I need your help with something. Go and tell the good news…” He looks at us and makes the same demand, promising “I will be with you always until the end of the age.”
When we’ve done this before, you will see it is not too late. You might have come to church today longing to see the angels whoosh down in all their glory, longing to hear the earth conspire with the morning stars in their singing. In the depths of your being, you might be desperate for a miracle.
It is not too late to walk out onto this green earth and hear your own voice say the Hallelujah and realize this time, you believe it. The world needs to hear the truth even when the truth is Hallelujah. The world needs the miracle that you can see.
Thank God. Amen.
 http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2409 —I am grateful for Holly Hearon’s excellent commentary and her suggestion that the women might have been expecting resurrection.