“Suddenly,” as Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were on their way to see the tomb, at the crack of dawn, on the first day of the week, there was a great earthquake. They didn’t stop to take out their PDA’s and google Richter Scale, and so we have no idea if it was a 7, a 4 or a 9.0 earthquake. But interestingly, this was not the first seismic activity in the gospel according to Matthew. Three days earlier, on Good Friday, there was also an earthquake. At first I was thinking Sunday's quake was just an after-shock. But on closer look, the Good Friday tremor, which Matthew describes as, “the earth shook,” seems the lesser one. And on the first day of the week, at the resurrection, it is, “a great earthquake,” which sounds more like the 9.0! Sometimes – there’s only about a 5% chance, scientists estimate – there occurs a warning quake before a big one hits, like the Good Friday ‘shaking,’ three days before the great one, when he was raised!
On Friday, the quake hit just as Jesus breathed his last on the cross. It shook the ground, rocks were split, and “many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised,” who later, after Jesus’ resurrection, Matthew says, “appeared to many in Jerusalem.” Obviously a foreshadowing of what was to take place on the third day, little resurrections before the big one. Who is the one that made heaven and earth and all that is in it? Is it not this one, the same one who has entered into our human history, the one who saves us by sharing in our death and then conquering it by walking free, and indeed, going ahead of us, that we may see the way we are to go?
Last month in Japan, many seismologists were surprised at the strength of the 9.0 earthquake that struck near Sendai. “The Great East Japan Earthquake,” as it has been named, was the largest ever recorded in Japan. Until that day, common scientific thought held that nothing more than an 8, or a little better, would ever come from that particular fault line of the Pacific Plate.
But, things change! Now they are trying to learn from what happened, even as they measure its surprising size. For this unpredictable quake moved the northeast part of the Japanese island, almost 8 feet closer to the United States. The seabed was lifted 79 feet at its epicenter. And the Earth’s axis shifted almost 10 inches, which in turn affected the speed of the earth’s rotation, shortening the day by 1.8 microseconds! And the quake released a surface energy of 19,000 joules. "If we could only harness the energy from this earthquake,” one official said, “it would power the city of Los Angeles for an entire year."
If St. Matthew’s two earthquakes, on Good Friday and Easter, had been reported on Facebook today, we would have “liked” it immediately! These quakes are ‘good news’ in this gospel. God is acting here and now, and taking part in our human history, redeeming and saving it. These quakes are not destructive, but signs of holy change – the first will be last and the last first; a star will appear in the east and lead you to the baby Jesus – that kind of sign. Good news, that points to our rescue and vindication through the Messiah.
The rescue story that most touched me from the Japanese earthquake, was on the ninth day, when an 80 year old woman, Sumi Abe, was brought out alive. She and her grandson were trapped in her home when the quake hit. They became entombed there, like a stone had been rolled in front of their door. Inside they survived on yogurt from the refrigerator, and not much else, the same refrigerator that had tipped over on grandma and had pinned her legs down. Finally the grandson was able to break free of the tomb, and climb his way up to the roof of the house, and signal for help.
On Easter Sunday, as it turns out, I think there was a kind of aftershock to the quake that opened Jesus' tomb. It was when “suddenly,” Jesus meets the women outside the tomb, with that warm and simple greeting. “Suddenly,” is how the quake first hit, and also how surprising and movingly Jesus appears to the two Mary's, “the crucified one,” now raised. And it's no coincidence, I think, that that they “see” him when they are on their way to “tell” his disciples, in their excitement of both “fear and joy,” as they had just become witnesses of the resurrection news themselves.
Perhaps, it is us, ourselves, who are the entombed ones, longing to be freed, and looking for a way out, unaware that we are subsisting on yogurt when we could be dining on Surf & Turf and the Bread of Life! And so Jesus invites us to find and discover him. Indeed, he tells us he is going before us to Galilee. Galilee was home, the place where Jesus and the disciples grew up, and where they gathered the sick and all those needing healing, where Jesus feeds the 5,000 with 5 loaves, where he taught them in the Sermon on the Mt. Here is where you will find the new resurrected Jesus, back home, the place where you live and work. Jesus comes to us in our everyday lives, suddenly, calling us to follow, and gather others.
Earthquakes bring enormous change, shifting land masses and altering time, and the Easter Sunday quake is no exception. The earth has moved and a messenger of God comes like a lightening bolt to change us and our world. The resurrection is ground zero for us. We are altered on this side of it. Something has shifted our whole perception of reality. Death has been conquered, and we hear the good news, “do not be afraid.” And it is in Galilee, in our most familiar places, our homes and everyday lives, where Jesus will meet us, and this sea-change takes place. Suddenly, when we least expect it, Jesus appears. “Greetings” pilgrim! Glad to have run into you!
Jesus comes in water and word. Baptizing us into his death and resurrection, that we may live a new life with him. Jesus comes in ordinary meals, and in the bread and the wine of communion where we are assured of his presence and filled with bread for the journey.
Wherever we are, Jesus changes us, suddenly, embracing us where we live our lives and empowering us to live anew. And so we embrace him, in our worship and in our lives – as we celebrate in this foretaste of the heavenly feast set before us and as we are joyful sent out: Alleluia! Christ is risen!
All: Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!
They “sealed the stone.” Not a comfortable place to end the story we love so well. Everyone knows the ending that comes after the sealed stone, when on the first day of the week the stone was rolled away, and the women find the tomb is empty and hear the angels announcement of the good news. But it does us no good to rush past the stone and the story of the Passion of Jesus. If the sealed stone were the end, Jesus would have been just a noble casualty in a failed bid to be Messiah. But without the Passion, the empty tomb on Sunday is but a fluffy smiley-face, compared to the depth of new life we so desperately need.
Brian Wren in his beautiful, “Sing my Song Backwards” wrote, “sing my song backwards from end to beginning, Friday to Monday, from dying to birth.” Like a favorite bed time story that’s read over and over again, even though you know the story by heart, we have a child-like awe and desire to cuddle up to the Passion of Jesus again. And, of course, in knowing both cross and resurrection, and entering in to the story, we are invited in to God’s salvation history, right now, today and everyday. So, how well do you know the story?
Together, the Passion and Easter story actually fill a quarter to a third of each of the four gospels, and are easily the single longest storyline they contain, underscoring how important the Passion is in proclaiming the good news. “The Passion” means, in this case, not just passionate, heartfelt emotions, though there is that in the story. But the word also derives from “passive,” referring to Jesus’ willing obedience to God, in his arrest, trial and death. And so we trace the Passion of Jesus during Holy Week from this “Sunday of the Passion” to the Three Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Great Vigil of Easter. It is the cross and resurrection, the palms and the passion, that reveal the Messiah, and change our lives.
The hymn from our second reading, Paul’s letter to the Philippians, is a good guide to this story of the Passion. In this passage, Paul quotes from one of the very earliest of Christian Hymns, where we find Passion and Resurrection are also central. The first line begins, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” and recalls Jesus’ gift of the Last Supper. Jesus hosts the Passover meal of his Jewish tradition, which celebrates the deliverance of God’s people, while at the same time he promises to be present in the meal to save us, ever after. On the night in which he was betrayed, by Judas, Jesus offers himself in the familiar bread and wine of the Passover meal, a gift of forgiveness and reconciliation, a revelation of his, and our, oneness with God, the one he called Father.
The next line of the hymn goes, “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped or exploited, but emptied himself… being born in human likeness.” The Jesus born of the Holy Spirit, and chosen and anointed by God at his Baptism, did not exploit Herod’s throne or grasp the seat of the High Priest in the Temple, but Jesus embraced his humanness as an itinerant preacher. Accordingly, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus gives himself up to the Temple soldiers to be arrested, tried and crucified. We see his human struggle, even as he divinely directs the events – Passion, at its best.
Then, the hymn continues: “And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” Jesus, fully human, offers himself as a model of godly life. We can never be sinless like Jesus. But we can see the way most clearly in Jesus’ journey, and obedient struggle. When we turn around from our old life, there is no better model to emulate and give us direction. Jesus endures insults and torture not to encourage our victimage, but to overcome the model of retaliation and mob mentality in the world’s cultures. The Passion of Jesus clarifies our path. Knowing that Jesus went all the way to the cross for our sake, we learn the way of active non-violence. We learn, not to be victims, but to be empowered, whether as individual believers or as the collective people of God.
And the final line of the hymn looks beyond the Passion. “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” In our Lenten and Passion Week walk, we find with Jesus, the reversal of darkness and death, and experience exaltation and peace in the glory of God’s presence forever.
How well do we know the story? When we hear the beauty of this early Christian Hymn that Paul quotes, we remember Jesus’ Passion, and God’s new creation on the first day of the week. Today, and in the Great Three Days later this week, we celebrate this story in real time, the story of our salvation. Then, one week from today, we gather early in the morning, when the “sealed stone” is rolled away.
The death of a loved one is always sad, difficult, and disorienting. We have a number of people who have lost loved ones recently, and others whose family or friends are ill. How many of us can say with Jesus, “this illness does not lead to death, rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” What does, illness and death lead to? Where does it take us? And, how do we react in our grief? No one can tell a person how to react to death, at least no one can predict exactly how anyone will feel.
When I started in my first parish I visited at Laturi’s nursing home, just a short 5 minute walk from our house, and could spend a whole afternoon there with all the members we had living there. Eventually, one by one, they died, until only Tyne Carlson was left. She was a very lovely lady, proper but not ostentatious. She had raised three great kids, with her husband had died 20 years earlier. But she had many friend’s that she kept in touch with, both at Laturi’s, and elsewhere. Her son Bob had the idea to buy her a new phone when she moved there, one with the large print numbers, and speed dial buttons, the first and only one like that she ever owned.. So Bob programmed in and wrote down all her friends names on the one touch buttons. And it worked really well until all those friends had died, and she alone was left at Laturi’s. But at some point, it became our own private joke that she could still keep in touch with friends, by her speed dial phone. She could still push Inez or Marilyn, Gladys or John, Erma or Vic, and give them a ring up in heaven – a convenient one-touch connection. Just as she enjoyed life with them here, she was still connected with them by her communion of saints phone.
“Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died,” Martha told Jesus. “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” I used to think that this showed how Martha was expecting Jesus to do precisely what he was about to do, raise her brother Lazarus from the grave. But on closer look, probably not. Everything points in the other direction. Jesus himself asked as much of Martha: you know that “your brother will rise again,” don’t you? Sure, said Martha, “on the last day.” Martha’s not really expecting a miraculous sign like the raising of her brother just yet, perhaps hoping for just a speed dial connection! So Jesus tells her how he is “the resurrection and the life,” and that those who know this, even though they die, will live, and for all those who live their baptized lives in him, will never die. What do you think Martha? Well, yes Lord, “I believe you’re the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” But then she left to call her sister Mary.
Neither Martha, nor Mary, nor any of the disciples, were able yet to grasp this message Jesus brought, before his resurrection. In some ways, the gospel is preaching right over the tops of their heads, and directly to all of us who have the perspective of time, after the resurrection. We can look back and see how Jesus is talking about so much more than the resurrection on the last day. “I am the resurrection, and the life,” said Jesus. “The one who is speaking with you,” right now, is that life.
Jesus knows full well his fate, that Jerusalem kills its prophets. And right after he calls Lazarus out of the tomb, half the people believe and follow Jesus, but the other half go and report what he did to the Council, who vow to do away with him.
What does illness and death lead to? Where does it take us? And how do we react? What vows do we take? Jesus was overcome with emotion, and wept after he came to the tomb of Lazarus. But it was not the same as the weeping of Mary and the crowds standing there. The Judeans came for that ritual performance of wailing that was expected by a crowd at a wake. This was the weeping of professional mourners. It was especially important when, for example, a Jew had been killed by a Roman soldier. Then the mourners came to whip up the emotions of the crowds, and to evoke the hate they were supposed to have for their enemies.
And so Jesus’ reaction to them was anger. The Greek terminology is more like, “mad,” snorting mad and “indignant,” which was actually an equal and appropriate response to their “weeping and wailing,” that was designed to whip up the passions of everyone.
When Jesus goes to the tomb, that’s when he is overcome! But his weeping is of a totally different kind, a different word for crying is used, that expresses a deep and spontaneous sorrow. This is the only place that word is used in the NT. Jesus is moved to show how this illness leads to God’s Glory. When he asks for the stone to be taken away from the tomb, Martha, the practical one, “stumbles” over the darkness of death and dying, cautioning against the consequences of the terrible stench. But Jesus, the resurrection and the life, looks upward in a prayer, giving thanks that God always hears, and trusting that now, the power of life that knows no darkness will shine for all to see!
So, does it make any difference knowing that Jesus taught us a new and different way to react to death? A different way to weep? The most obvious example in our time is the reaction our country has had to the many senseless deaths of 9/11. The shock and horror of that day is beyond words, and the intentional pain inflicted is still hard to imagine. And yet the reaction to whip up the crowds in the rubble of the World Trade site, in those early days, by our president, has reverberated with untold additional harm. The national mourning encouraged revenge and justified an illegal war against Iraq, which needlessly ended thousands of more lives, both Iraqi and American, created 100’s of 1,000 of refugees, and continues to stoke prejudice and retaliation against Muslims here in this country and fuels an anti-Americanism abroad.
This historic stumble could have been different if our leadership had walked in the daylight that Jesus offers, and wept as Jesus wept for Lazarus. It is not easy to do, in the face of unspeakable attacks. One must be grounded in the resurrection and the life, a vow of forgiveness and trust. Believing is more than saying the words of the creed, but trusts in the promise that he is with us now, already, and forever. We can see it in the raising of Lazarus, this foreshadowing of the death and resurrection of the one who was innocent, our Messiah.
When we do, we are ready to act for freedom, and life, and love, and our weeping turns into joy. Because we know that as we walk in the light, we learn more and more to react as Jesus did. And as we journey, we learn to say with Jesus, “unbind him and let him go,” knowing that we are speaking of ourselves, and for the redemption of all.
One of my life goals is to learn how to make pottery. [hold up pottery] Here is the first piece I ever made. If you can’t see it from there, that’s alright, it’s no work of art! I made it at a beginners class some years ago at Holden Village, the Lutheran camp up in the beautiful Cascade Mountains of Washington. It’s not a work of art, that’s for sure. But some day I hope to get my hands back into some clay and really learn how to do it.
Speaking of real art! Last year at the Art Institute of Chicago, they had that wonderful exhibit of Henri Matisse’s works, which featured, Bathers by a River. Only recently was it discovered how this influential, abstract painting from the early 20th C. had been made by him. Surprisingly, it evolved over many years of working and re-working it. Through a kind of X-ray technology they found Matisse had scratched off what he had painted, using washes and acids, and added something new, many times over. You can see the connection from the beginning of its life to the end, but it transformed into something completely different. The canvas is huge, and the physical work was demanding for him. He never admitted that it belonged in the Cubism movement of his time, and though it certainly evokes that, it is truly a style and a work all its own.
Jesus, in our gospel reading, is creating too: “Jesus spat on the ground and made mud with his saliva and spread it on the man’s eyes.” What we may miss with this crude gesture, is the more obvious connection to the creation stories of the first two chapters in Genesis. God also created humans from the earth, as a kind of clay. Or as the Psalmist and St Paul both noted, later on, God like a potter, forms us carefully and purposefully, as a clay jar, or earthen vessel. So when the blind man’s neighbors ask him “how his eyes were opened,” he says, “the man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, …then I went and washed, and received my sight.” Jesus is “working a work of God” in the blind man “while it is still day.”
The symbolism is rich indeed, in this story of the blind man from John’s gospel. Light and darkness, blind and seeing, beggar and believers, all point beyond themselves to God’s works.
In the catacombs in Rome, there are believed to be perhaps the earliest pictures of the gospel stories. And among them is the fresco of Jesus healing the blind man. The blind man is kneeling down and Jesus is seen spreading mud on his eyes. It is just one of the many saving stories portrayed there in the catacombs, along with Jonah and the whale, the healing of the woman with the flow of blood, and Jesus’ resurrection among others. The early Christians thought and believed in a multi-layered way, perceiving the power of God working on many levels throughout the cosmos. And there, in the darkness of the underground rooms, many believers worshiped “the light of the world.”
And so, from the early centuries of the church, all our gospel stories from John in this season of Lent – the man born blind, the woman at the well, Nicodemus, and the raising of Lazarus – were used as catechetical stories for baptismal candidates. The time of instruction in Lent culminated then, at the end of the 40 days, in a host of baptisms at the Great Easter Vigil.
The man born blind then is a perfect example of our journeying with Christ, and how each of us comes to faith in our lives, as we encounter the Messiah of God, and take up our baptismal callings. He comes into the world as a beggar, with nothing. He is like Adam and Eve, creatures who don’t ask to be born into this world, but are formed out of the dust of the ground and enlivened by God’s breath and spirit. And he is created like the first day of creation in which there was no light, only a watery chaos, until God said “let there be light,” and there was. We too receive faith as a gift, and we see. We do not ask for Jesus to come and rescue us or put mud in our eye! But like the blind man that Jesus healed, we are saved anyway! Many of us even were baptized as infants, without our permission, washed clean and claimed by God in Christ before we could speak for ourselves. At first we are beggars and don’t know how it is that we have come to believe, all we know is that we do. We learn to testify to the light that has come into our lives, however, just as the blind man did. He had to defend himself, and actually holds his own against the learned ones of his time. “Here is an astonishing thing,” he says to the religious leaders, “you do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.” “If this man [Jesus] were not from God, he could do nothing.”
By the end, the man who was formerly blind, sees that Jesus is the Messiah, and the Judean leaders have become blind. The one who used to sit and beg has gone from darkness to light. Now his worship life is beginning! He confesses his belief in Jesus and worships him.
The Greek and Hebrew belief about seeing and blindness were so different compared to what we know about our vision today. The Greeks believed that there was a fire within, and that the pupil of the eye let the light through, like a lamp burning, which made sight possible. And for the Hebrews the light of life came from the heart, and the eye could see God’s goodness. But a man born blind, meant his heart was full of darkness. “Envy” was called “an evil eye.” So the disciples assumed that the blind man was a sinner. They just wondered who was responsible, the man himself, or his parents. And when Jesus said neither, they must have been confused, taken aback! “He was born blind,” Jesus said, “so that God’s works might be revealed through him.” For Jesus, blindness was an opportunity for healing and God’s wholeness to shine through, not another excuse to keep people in their preordained boxes of in and out, touchables and untouchables. Jesus is teaching us something new all the time – still! As we continue to worship Christ, we continue to develop our relationship with the incarnate God. Our eyes are opened, the potter’s wheel is spinning, and we are transformed more and more into the creatures God is making.
And so we are on the way, from darkness to light, and from blindness to belief. Everything we see is refocused through the lens of opportunity for the glory of God to shine through. Jesus is in the world, as the light of the world. And we are called to testify, having been washed in the pool of our baptisms, to go out in the world and work the works of the one who sends us. We are master painters like Matisse, working and re-working the canvass of our lives for the sake of the world. We are novice potters, dipping our hands in the clay and forming earthen vessels, co-creators with God, teaching others how to open their eyes to what God is doing. Once we were blind, but now we see.