April 21, 2019
Matthew 28: 1-15a
What if We Believed?
Rev. Nancy Talbot
If you have ever seen the movie “The Sound of Music” you probably remember the movie’s dramatic ending. With heart stopping intensity, the von Trapp family are rushed from the backstage of the Salzburg music festival into a waiting car. From there they are madly driven through the streets to the Abby where the Mother Abbess has agreed to take them in. There is no time to spare. As soon as the Nazis authorities learn Captain von Trapp has fooled them and is planning to escape his duties in the German navy they will be hot on his trail. Sure enough the von Trapps barely arrive at the Abby when the brown shirts come knocking at the door. The Mother Abbess quickly whisks all 9 of the von Trapps into the cemetery crypt where they hide amongst the tombstones.
This is the part where no matter how many times I have watched this movie my own heart begins to race. On the one hand I sense the courage and anticipation of the family who are so close to winning their freedom they can taste it. And on the other hand the fear of their capture is equally as close. Joy and terror mingle into one. The brown shirts, their arm bands emblazoned with swastikas arrive at the Abbey. We hold our breath as they walk among the tombstones flashing their lights searching for the runaways. And then just as they are leaving comes that dreadful moment when young Rolfe spots his sweetheart Liesl and time stands still. We don’t know if his heart will be ruled by love or fear. What we do know is that we are caught up in an ageless story of good versus evil, life versus death. Will Rolfe blow the whistle and turn them in or will he have the courage to court danger himself and let the family go to their freedom in peace.
If someone were to make a movie of the final chapter of Matthew’s gospel, the version of the resurrection story we heard read this morning, the scene would be no less heart stopping than the final scenes of the Sound of Music. This also is a story full of courage and danger, fear and joy all mingled into one.
It was early in the morning, on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary make their way to the tomb. Suddenly, all heaven breaks lose. First comes a great earthquake, the ground beneath them rumbling and shifting. Then, descending from heaven an angel appears, rolls back the stone blocking the entrance to the tomb and settles himself on top of it. At the sight of the angel, the Roman soldiers who have been sent by Pilate to guard the tomb at the request of the chief priests and Pharisees lest Jesus followers steal the body away, shake with fear, fall to the ground and become like the dead themselves. The women must act quickly now as there is no time to lose. It won’t be long before the soldiers come to their senses and when they do they will surely return to Pilate and tell him what has transpired. The angel whisks the women into the tomb and says to them “do not be afraid. Come, quickly and see the place where he lay. He is not here for he has been raised just as he said. Now go! Tell the others what has happened. Tell them he is going ahead of you to Galilee and there you will see him. Time is of the essence they will be coming for you so go on get out of here now. It is not safe for you to stay.” The angel doesn’t actually say all those things in the biblical story but that is the essence of what is being said. When we hear that the women left the tomb with great fear and great joy we can only assume that it was because like the family von Trapp they too could both taste the freedom that the angel’s words proclaimed while at the same time sensing the danger that was also close at hand.
In case we have any doubt about that, the writer of Matthew’s gospel adds into his story the report of what happened to the guards after they were roused out of their deathly state. He tells us that while the women were on their way to tell the men what had happened, some of the guard went into the city and reported to the chief priests what they had seen. The priests, fearing what would happen if the news got out, paid the soldiers off with hush money telling them if anybody asks you what happened on this day you must say ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were sleeping.’ Paid them off, just in case one of them might let their hearts be ruled by love not fear and confirm what had actually happened at the tomb.
Clearly the writer of Matthew’s gospel wants us to know that there is something about the empty tomb that is very dangerous to those who believe in its power.
Did you know that coming to church this morning was a potentially dangerous thing to do?
If we believe in the power of the resurrection, there is no end to the possibility that can be unleashed in our world. Notice that I didn’t say if we believe in the resurrection of the body of Jesus Christ. I didn’t even say if we believe in Jesus Christ. I said if we believe in the power of the resurrection. Because it’s the power that did whatever it did to Jesus and his followers that has the capacity to stir up both joy and fear in the hearts of those who believe in it. It’s the power that changes lives. It’s the power that threatens systems of domination. It’s the power that heals and forgives. It’s the power that changes the course of history.
That power is here and out there and in each and every one of us.
Of the four gospel writers, only Matthew’s version of the resurrection includes an earthquake and a whole lot of running and rushing away from the tomb because Matthew wants us to be clear that whatever it was that happened after Jesus died that gave his followers the courage and the strength to keep his dream alive it wasn’t something they manufactured of their own free will. It was something Divinely enacted, something that was of God.
And I think that is why to this day many of us still struggle with the meaning of resurrection. We know that dead bodies don’t just rise up from the grave. So the concept is something our rational minds find very difficult to wrap our heads around. The whole point is that we’re not meant to rationally understand any of this. We are meant instead to allow ourselves to enter into the mystery of it all to give us the courage and the determination to live by its transforming power.
The things that come about in our lives and in our world when we give ourselves over to trusting and believing in the power of resurrecting life and love are the things in our lives that cannot be manufactured or orchestrated or fully understood. They’re the things that we cannot pre-meditate or otherwise rationally know. Like the way the death of a loved one can open the door for healing and grace. Or the way an illness can bring with it profoundly deep life lessons and beautiful experiences we might not otherwise have never known. The way a terrible divorce can make way for opportunities you would never have previously dreamed of. The way after years and years of working for peace and freedom something finally shifts and a way forward suddenly opens for a people once enslaved.
We never know when or where these Divinely orchestrated things will happen and yet if there is anything about our Easter story that is instructive and true the place the seeds of new life begin to first take root are in the places of death and the places of destruction whether that death be at the end of one’s life or among the many ways we are called to die to our false and destructive selves in the course of our lives.
At the end of the movie The Sound of Music when young Rolfe discovers Leisl and her family in the Abby cemetery crypt, they have no idea if he is going to blow the whistle and turn them in or if he will have the courage to court danger himself and let the family go to their freedom in peace. It turns out there’s enough love in his heart to let the family go and as they escape on foot the next morning into Switzerland the hills come alive with the sound of music.
Apparently the real life von Trapp family upon which the movie is based actually escaped into Switzerland via train but that doesn’t mean the hills didn’t come alive with the freedom of a family running in fear and joy for the new life awaiting them on the other side of those mountains.
They came alive in the same way they come alive again and again whenever risks are taken and hearts dare to believe in the dangerous power that resurrects and makes all things new.