Sacred or Scared?

Sunday, April 16, 2017

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, April 16, 2017, Easter Sunday.

Text: Matthew 28:1-10



Let’s talk about the position description for God’s angels, shall we?  What are the essential functions of this role?  I bring this up because it seems there is a pretty radical deviation in performance among the heavenly host.  Last year, we read the Easter story as it’s recorded in John.  I found myself aggravated by the two angels in that account who just sit there in the empty tomb, the only words out of their mouths to ask Mary Magdalene why she’s crying.  If, as I believe is correct, an angel is supposed to be a messenger, then I’m unclear just what message John’s envoys are trying to communicate.  But how about this angel in Matthew?!  This one is awesome.  First off, there’s no way you’re going to miss this messenger who arrives fashionably late—after the Marys are at the tomb—and then doesn’t saunter in, but flies in wearing a cape with pyrotechnics—earthquake and lightning. This angel is one of those buff angels, and gets busy making short work of that big stone—clearly no fuss, no muss, since when the job is done the angelic cape is still white as snow.  Then the angel plops down with what I imagine is not a little attitude—Maxine Waters-style—as if to say, “See what I did there?”  Nary a word or glance directed to the guards who have passed out in fear—who has time for that nonsense?  The focus is elsewhere by then. Because this angel is there to deliver a message:  SuperAngel turns to Mary Magdalene and to the other Mary (likely Jesus’s momma) and speaks to them with such care and clarity:  “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.  Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”  Now that is some good reporting right there.  That’s my kinda angel. 

Every part of the message is important, intentional, direct, and clear.  There is little room for misunderstanding and little need for interpretation.  This is the news and it is good and it’s clear what is to be done next.  The women set out, feeling joyful though still afraid—after all, the authorities killed Jesus only days before and they still haven’t actually seen him.  As they go, Jesus comes to them, assures them they don’t need to be afraid, and confirms their mission: go and tell the truth!  If you read to the end of the story, you will see that the disciples and Jesus do meet up in Galilee and when they see Jesus, they worship him—“but some doubted.” (Mt 28:17)  Some doubted.  Doubt—to wrestle and push back on things as we seek understanding and integration—is a healthy part of spiritual life.  I would never discount that process. 


What I wonder is: having received such a clear message, what did some doubt and why?  Did they doubt Jesus’ intentions for them?  After all, in those days, violent revenge was not uncommon –and they’d all deserted Jesus in his hour of need. (Mt 26:56)  Did they doubt whether it would be worth it to continue following in Jesus’s way?  After all, Jesus’s way got him into all sorts of trouble and put him on a cross.  Or did they doubt whether they were really seeing a resurrected Jesus?  How could they doubt that, though, when the truth was staring them right in the face? 


Well, Matthew’s account of things includes some interesting context.  After Jesus was buried, the authorities set a guard at the tomb to keep it “secure.” (This could have been up to 50 soldiers if it was a Roman guard—but certainly more than a few.) The fear is that Jesus’s disciples will steal the body and then claim resurrection. (Mt 27:63-66)  As we heard in the reading, the members of the guard were evidently no match for SuperAngel and, after they recover from that experience, some of their number go and make a report of what happened to the powers that be.  And the powers decide to bribe the soldiers—to give them “a large sum” of money to get them to lie and say that the disciples came and stole the body of Jesus while the guard slept.  They also promise to protect the guard from getting in trouble with the Roman Governor for being bested by Maxine Waters ;-) (Mt 28:13-14).  Matthew—the only Gospel writer who mentions this business with the guard at the tomb—is certainly responding to a debate in Jewish-Christian relations at the time the story was written; and I don’t need or want to debate the historicity of Matthew’s details this morning. 


What I do want to highlight is that Matthew—in telling the story this way—gives us an early prototype for the employment of “alternative facts.”  We’ve got serious spin going on here by those in power.  Even if the details of Matthew’s account aren’t technically historical, it is clear that the story captures something very real and very human—it is just so familiar.  Trusted authority figures using money to manipulate  people and distort reality; power players assuring that the falsehood is repeated again and again so that it becomes possible to begin to doubt your own perception of things…  “I thought he was really dead…”  “I didn’t steal the body, but maybe one of the others did and just aren’t saying…”  Some doubted…


What Matthew’s Easter account with all its backroom dealing does for us is highlight a central feature of the whole story of Jesus:  the message of God’s Kin-dom is absolutely counter to the message of the existing power structures.  This has been a central theme for us throughout the season of Lent and on this day of all days the dueling forces vying for our love and allegiance face off once and for all. 

The powers of this broken world spin and tweet and scheme and bribe and deceive to secure their own sense of safety and power and privilege.  From age to age the message circulated by the empires of this world is that we need to be afraid.  We need to be afraid of each other.  We need to be afraid of losing wealth, privilege, control.  We need to be afraid of the unknown, to be afraid of pain, to be afraid of difference, to be afraid of failure.  We need to be afraid of death.


The message circulated by empire is that the only way to be safe is through violence, through criminalizing immigrants, through executing people, through blaming the oppressed for their suffering, through promoting racist “law and order,” through dropping the “mother of all bombs.”  The message circulated by the powers and principalities is that, to be safe, you need them, that you will be OK if you just give them a chance, if you don’t question where the money is going—or not going, if you just go about your daily business and don’t get involved, if you don’t push back when you begin to think, “there’s something wrong with this picture,” if you surrender to the notion that you can’t make any difference so why bother…  The message circulated by existing power players is: be afraid, be as good as dead, be scared to death.


This message is easy to believe because we know we’re vulnerable… and we often feel overwhelmed and paralyzed.  We have created and sustained a noisy world full of rattling sabers and semiautomatic weapons, a country in which so-called “deaths of despair”—deaths by drugs, alcohol, and suicide—are on the rise in response “a measurable deterioration in economic and social wellbeing.”[i] We have created and sustained a nation cluttered with death-dealing policies that deny access to healthcare, voting booths, affordable housing, and clean drinking water, a world polluted with  racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, and xenophobia.  The thoughtless effects of our lack of care for the planet threaten life of all kinds.  We’ve made a mess of our world.  And in this country these days, those who try to name the truth are mocked and maligned. “Alternative facts” has somehow become a thing—and the messages we hear from our leaders change with the wind, often have no relation to reality, and sow chaos and confusion; so much so that Time magazine recently asked the question on their cover, “Is Truth Dead?”[ii]  It is easy to believe the message that resistance is futile and that we should be scared to death. 


It is easy.  But it is not the only option.  There is another message.  A counter proposal.  And it rises up today proclaiming this: you can’t kill Truth.  And I’m not talking about facts and data, though those things are certainly true in the lowercase kind of way.  I’m talking about the capital “T” Truth who is not an idea that can be spun by little men with their trumped up schemes; I’m talking about the person in whom God’s never-changing Word of love is eternally expressed—who even when beaten and crucified loves and forgives to bring about new creation after new creation.  I’m talking about the Truth who shows us the way, the Truth who is our life, the Truth who is God’s steadfast love.  I’m talking about the Truth who takes up residence in the middle of our mess, who meets us in our grief, who goes ahead to blaze our path, who gathers us up when we are weak, who gives courage in our struggle, who speaks peace in times of trial.  I’m talking about the Truth whose ways are just and merciful and whose presence is assured.  You can’t kill Truth!  And even when you think you have, Truth is gonna rise on the third day. 


Counter to the fear-mongering messages of the world, Jesus gently proclaims that we don’t have to be scared—but if we are, God is with us.  Jesus proclaims this to us from the other side of the grave.  As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.  God is with us.  World without end.

There is an image that has grown in power for me over the years of being married to a Catholic and praying every year with the Jesuits.  It is the icon of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a picture of Jesus with his physical heart literally outside his body.  Sometimes the icon shows Jesus’s heart lit up like a neon sign, other times it is on fire, always it is encircled with a crown of thorns.  The icon represents Jesus’ divine love for humanity.  I am moved by the thought that Jesus makes his heart so vulnerable and exposed.  My favorite rendering has Jesus holding his heart as though to hand it over to anyone who asks…  This is the image for me of what “sacred” means.  Jesus, God’s sacred heart, gives himself to the world in love and without defense—knowing full well what we will do to so vulnerable a gift.  God offers us this love, offers you this perfect love, a love that is steadfast, that never changes, a love that has the power to cast out fear (1 Jn 4:18) and to set us free.


In the face of all the challenges of our day, in the midst of crazy-making spin, injustice, temptation to idolatry, and paralyzing fear, we here at Foundry are determined to resist; and we call our resistance “sacred.”  Today we are all reminded that we don’t have to be afraid of all that threatens, but when we are, Christ is with us.  We are reminded that there is life on the other side of death and loss and pain and grief.  We are reminded that we are called to keep moving forward, following the path blazed by Christ who has gone ahead of us.  We are reminded that, as we go, we will see Christ.  We are reminded that the forces of deception and fear and chaos and death are no match for the God who is with us.  They sent armed guards who trembled and fell.  They threw around their money to shut the story down, but here we are, proclaiming it still.  They sealed the stone to lock love up but on this resurrection morning those prison bars are shattered and love roams free. They struck down the tender sacred heart but Christ rose up to offer it again.  Every time they knock God down, Spirit rises up, Word rises up, love rises up, Truth rises up.  They tried to kill the truth—but my friends… they can’t handle the Truth! 

The gentle, loving, steadfast Truth takes us by the hand today, to help us rise up, to help us offer our hearts to the world, to help us live.  Thanks be to God!




[i] Anne Case and Sir Angus Deaton, “Mortality and Morbidity in the 21st Century,”