Sermon: God at Work in the Tomb

Easter Sunday, 20 April 2014 – Rev. Gia Hayes-Martin:
It’s a dramatic scene that Matthew sets. It is dawn, cool and damp with dew. The faint grey light of early morning leaches the colors out of the world, as though it is an ancient black-and-white film. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary arrive at the tomb, still shattered by the death of Jesus two days before. They have pulled themselves together to visit his grave, but they are in the haze of early grief, exhausted, tear-stained, and shocked at the suddenness of it all. As they draw near to the tomb carved out of the rock, an earthquake strikes. We know what that’s like; we can imagine the sharp movement of the ground, the wave of energy throwing the women off their feet, the way they curl up to protect themselves as rocks and branches rain down on them. As the shaking subsides, they sit up to see an angel descending from above. He is a fearsome creature, human yet inhuman, with a face like lightning and clothes of dazzling white. The two Marys have to squint against the brightness of this heavenly being. The guards that Pilate set at the tomb are so frightened by the earthquake and the angel that they become like the dead; they fall down and don’t move. Matthew includes these details for a reason. For him, the earthquake, the angel, the guards falling down are ways of saying that this is no human event. Whatever happened in that tomb, no person could possibly have brought it about. The resurrection could only have come about through the presence and activity of God.

I don’t know about you, but for me, my growth as a mature adult has meant recognizing the limits of my human capacity. I was told as a child that I could do anything I wanted. That’s an important message for little girls and boys to hear as they figure out what they want to be when they grow up, yet it’s not always true. There are things I, as a human being, simply cannot do. I cannot change other people. As hard as I try, they remain who they are unless they decide to change for themselves. It took me a long time and a lot of hurt feelings to figure that out. I cannot undo the past. What has happened in my life, in the lives of family and friends, is final. No amount of regret and what-ifs can rewrite what has already been done. And I cannot stop death. As many times as I have wanted to bring a person back from the dead, to ease a family’s grief and give them back what they lost, I cannot. It is beyond my power, and beyond the power of any human being. For me, growing up has forced me to admit that I am not God––and my real regret that I cannot be.

You and I are not God. You and I can’t raise the dead, but God can. God can, and God does. God was at work in the tomb, turning the broken bones, the empty lungs, and the smell of decay into new life. God was trampling down the power of death over the world, opening the way of eternal life to all people. God heard Death’s loud, resounding “No,” and God smiled a secret smile, and whispered, “Yes.” And with that one word from God, the dead man breathed, the broken body sat up, the stone rolled away, and Jesus was raised to new life. It was beyond any human capacity; only God could have done it. The earthquake, the angel, the guards falling down all point to the presence and activity of God.

And just as God was at work in the tomb of Jesus, God is at work in the tombs of our lives. Wherever despair threatens to drown us, God reaches out a hand to pull us to safety. Wherever addiction or guilt sap our potential, God offers the healing power of recovery and forgiveness. Wherever conflict and alienation separate people from each other, God holds out the light of reconciliation. Wherever hope is buried, God is bringing new life. It may be beyond human capacity, but God can do this, and God does.

There were beautiful and moving examples of God at work in The New York Times Magazine earlier this month. The issue marked the twentieth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, in which Hutu militants murdered as many as a million Tutsis––the number of victims may never be known. The story in the Times was a photo essay of perpetrators and victims, pictured together, speaking of forgiveness. All of the photos and stories were powerful, but the one that particularly grabbed me was of perpetrator Dominique and victim Cansilde. They were photographed in a classroom standing next to each other, shyly holding hands. Dominique is wearing a khaki suit with a jacket too big for his lean frame; Cansilde has close-cropped hair and a brightly printed blue dress. Dominique said, “The day I thought of asking pardon, I felt unburdened and relieved. I had lost my humanity because of the crime I had committed, but now I am like any human being.” And Cansilde said, “After I was chased from my village and Dominique and others looted it, I became homeless and insane. Later, when he asked my pardon, I said, ‘I have nothing to feed my children. Are you going to help raise my children? Are you going to build a house for them?’ The next week, Dominique came with some survivors and former prisoners who perpetrated genocide. There were more than fifty of them, and they built my family a house. Ever since then, I have started to feel better. I was like a dry stick; now I feel peaceful in my heart, and I share this peace with my neighbors.”[1] Humanity restored to one who had lost it through his crimes. A home for a family that lost everything. And peace, peace that flows out to touch others in the community. That is God at work in the tomb. That is resurrection.

I wonder: what are the tombs in our lives, in the world around us? How are we longing for the stone to roll away? And where do we notice God at work, bringing new life and renewing hope?

On this day, we rejoice at God’s work in raising Jesus to new life. We rejoice in God’s whispered “Yes” in a world that so often shouts “No.” And when the forces of death and despair threaten to overwhelm us, we cry all the louder, “Alleluia! Christ is risen.” For “The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!”

Jeremiah 31:1-6; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Colossians 3:1-4; Matthew 28:1-10

[1] “Portraits of Reconciliation,” photographs by Pieter Hugo and text by Susan Dominus, The New York Times Magazine, April 6, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/04/06/magazine/06-pieter-hugo-rwanda-portraits.html?ref=magazine (accessed April 17, 2014).

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