Where We’re Expected

a sermon for the Resurrection of Our Lord [Year A]

Matthew 28:1-10 and Colossians 3:1-4

What a place to deliver an Easter message…our columbarium! You are probably not expecting me to be here, are you? You are probably expecting to see me back in the sanctuary where a preacher usually is. That’s what we’d all expect because we’re used to it. Preachers preach from a pulpit, or at least from a sanctuary or a church. This is a little strange, to be honest. I wouldn’t expect to find myself here, but here I am, and to be quite honest, this might be the best place to deliver an Easter sermon. I mean, after all, the first Easter sermon, the first truly good news, was preached at a tomb and no one expected to hear the message there, either.

columbarium garden

And so I’m not the first to do this, by a long shot. It’s been done countless times before. The Moravians in my hometown of Winston-Salem begin their city-wide Easter celebration by gathering in the cemetery. People come from all across the city in the early morning hours, just like the first women we hear about this morning, and stand among the gravestones and announce the news of Jesus’ resurrection.

One may initially think of such a location as dark and forlorn. Most of my meetings here, like the one we had yesterday to lay one of our dear, long-time members to rest, are somber gatherings, laden with grief and sadness. However, we know that a place like this is actually a place of hope. Because Jesus is risen, every columbarium, every cemetery, every tomb is a place of that bears the good news. That first Easter sermon went like this: “I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here.”

We may be surprised, but the news is not fake. Jesus has risen from the dead, releasing from death’s grip all who have died, releasing from sin’s grip all who are living. Christ is risen, here and everywhere!

Our particular columbarium here at Epiphany is gripping. It is designed to grip you, physically, once you walk in. The walls, which are perfectly circular, completely embrace you. It creates an atmosphere of calm and silence, which is good, but it also effectively shuts out the world around you. I like this design, but it is clear that when you are in, you are really in. It grips you, encloses you, surrounds you.

It occurs to me that this is actually how many of us are feeling about life right now.

We are gripped by a public health emergency that may last several more weeks. Still under certain restrictions, we are literally surrounded by the walls of our homes, barely able to leave. How many of us are ready to break free? We are also enclosed by the anxiety of financial hardship, feeling that the world we once knew has been shut out or is gone. We are hemmed in by news of death and disease.

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map of the COVID-19 pandemic

But the resurrection story is full of God’s ability to break through and break down the things that grip and enclose God’s people. Just listen to what happens as the women show up to see Jesus’ tomb. First, there is the stone at the entrance to the tomb: a blockade if there ever were one! These stones were enormous and designed to make the grave a one-way passage. But the stone is rolled away as first an earthquake occurs and then when an angel of the Lord comes down to sit upon it, as if to say, “No big deal.”

Matthew is the only gospel writer to record an earthquake at the resurrection. Matthew uses the word for earthquake in several places to signal a major change of the future, to shift our attention to what God is doing to bring about the final vision of his kingdom. At the tomb that morning, an earthquake moves the stone away—the stone that still grips life— and reveals God’s vision for the kingdom has no place for death.

Then there are the men who guard the tomb. We can imagine them with big weapons and a menacing posture, standing there ready to grip anyone who may tamper with it. The angel of the Lord takes care of them. They shake and become, we are told, like dead men.

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And then there is perhaps the most gripping force of all: fear. Fear, that force that comes from within, is often the most immobilizing of all. The women must feel so much fear that morning, that they twice they hear, “Do not be afraid”—once from the messenger and once from Jesus himself. It is the Word of God that breaks through. It is the Word of God, ever alive, always living, that comes to shatter our chambers of doubt and fear—the Word of God that can break through the walls that surround us and bring us new life.

In what ways are you seeing the Word of God claim victory over worldly threats and break through the powers that grip you? How have you encountered the Word of God busting you loose from the bonds of sin and darkness that hold you fast? Where have you found God’s grace and love where you didn’t expect it?

Once the stone and the guards and the fear are overcome, the story continues. The women leave the tomb because Jesus is not where they expected him to be. He has been raised and is already ahead of them in the world. And that is precisely where God expects to find us. When Jesus goes looking for his people, he expects to find them out and about, filled with the hope of new life. He expects to find them on the move, out there, announcing by their very presence and witness that God is victorious over death.

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This is what the writer of Colossians means this morning when he says our life is hidden with Christ in God. If Christ is out of the tomb, beyond the fear, no longer in death’s grip, then somehow we are, too. In a world that still often operates out of fear and anxiety, Christ’s people are people of life and possibility. This life of hope and joy we share is not always obvious and immediately apparent because the world seems so dark sometimes, but it is there, hidden in the everyday, hidden in plain sight. The people of Christ, the people of Easter, are sent out in the world to be and look for God’s new creation, to set our minds of things that are above in the midst of scenarios that try to focus us on the fear.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a webinar given by Philip Jenkins, a professor at Baylor University and one of the world’s pre-eminent scholars in the history of Christianity. I guess this is the age of webinars, isn’t it? I tried to avoid using that word for so long because it sounds weird: webinar. I remember when I first heard of them I thought there’s no way this will last. But here we are, webinars all the way! Anyway, the subject of the webinar was Christian responses to epidemics throughout history, and he was quick to explain right at the start that things like plagues and widespread diseases like we are dealing with now are actually the norm for Christian history. One early bishop of the church, Dionysius, who served during an outbreak of one plague that killed thousands, described plagues as a “school” for people of faith. Why would he say something like that? Why it is a school, a time of testing?

Because, as we have come to see ourselves, life in a time like this gives followers of Christ and exceptionally intense but wonderful opportunity to practice the central tenets of their faith. To put it another way, life during the kind of widespread suffering that can claim anyone is a perfect time to live as people of hope and healing and resurrection. It is time to have no fear, to venture out into the world’s suffering because Jesus is risen from the dead. It’s a time to have no fear, to hunker down if it’s called for because it may alleviate the world’s suffering. And whatever happens, it is a time to trust that anything that stands in the way of God’s love for us has been conquered. Our life is eternal, hidden in Christ, at a time when so much seems uncertain.

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Behind me you can see elements of our church construction, where for months workers have been ripping up the old parking lot and the old structures and laying a foundation for a renewed one. It is a wonderful image of new creation. Earth being moved around. Even some very large stones have been moved away. One day not too long ago I was chatting with one of the workers on site while he was taking a break. He was particularly excited to talk to me that day because he wanted to share with me that over the weekend he was going to be attending the baptisms of his two grandchildren.

I could tell there was something more he wanted to share. Sure enough, as he explained, his grandchildren were not going to be baptized in a church, and while he didn’t seem disappointed, it was sure he didn’t know what to make of it. As it turns out, both of his grandchildren were of military families and they were going to be baptized aboard a ship down in the Norfolk harbor. He wasn’t sure what it was going to look like, how it was going to feel, if there was going to be a congregation there, if he would like it. But then he proudly reached for his phone to show me pictures.

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I’m not sure what a baptism on a ship would feel or look like, but as I’ve thought about that conversation, and as I’ve thought about this world, I think a ship is a perfect place for a baptism. If Christ is out of the tomb and we are now hidden in him, we should expect that God’s grace for us should set us on the move, on the waves of life, always abroad and even adrift at times.

The church, God’s people, the Easter believers—we are people of a ship. That is one of the oldest images of the church, and what many sanctuary designs are based on. The place where we would normally be sitting is called the nave, like the word “navy.” The point is—whether we are here this year or not, the church’s place is out in the world. The church’s stance is unafraid, ready to learn, full of hope, ready for the earthquake. The church’s tasks are looking to heaven, preaching life, expecting Jesus to meet us exactly where God expects us to be! So let’s move, people. Anchor’s aweigh. Have no fear.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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