Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Scripture: Matthew 28:1-10
Sermon from Easter Sunday, April 12, 2020
Good morning. I’m Kristin Stoneking, senior pastor at Epworth United Methodist Church in Berkeley, California. Thank you for worshipping here on this Easter Sunday, an Easter that is, undoubtedly, historic. Wherever you are joining from, we are glad you are here. Often when we can’t be present at an event in person, we say we’ll “be there in spirit” or “we’ll be together in spirit.” Never doubt that the same spirit that has connected us over generations, and in life, and in life beyond death is here with us now, connecting us across time and space.
Since I was a kid, Easter has always been one of my favorite days of the year, and not just because I have an incredible sweet tooth. I love Easter because it’s a sign the sun is coming back, warmer days are returning, signs of spring are all around us in the colors of the blooms, baby birds chirping, trees budding. When I was a kid, I was willing to wear what was often a scratchy dress, and tight shoes to celebrate this day of joy and faith and life.
And this year, we need Easter more than ever. I wonder if you, like I, have been spending a lot of time, not in the sun, but in front of a screen. More time contemplating death than celebrating life. I was in a zoom birthday party a couple of weeks ago and the conversation turned at one point to which websites each of us were checking to monitor the number of coronavirus cases and deaths. I confess to you this morning that as we began sheltering in place, one of the first things I would do in the morning was reach for my phone to check the numbers. Was there a spike in Italy, how is France, where are things in South America, what’s happening in the United States, in Kansas and Missouri and New York where my extended family is, and in California.
At first, when California’s numbers were in the low double digits, I had a sense of where the persons who had contracted the virus were—Alameda County or San Francisco County or Santa Clara County or Los Angeles County, I knew some details about them (though of course not much was released). I had a sense of each number as an individual. A person with a story, relationships, a life. But as the numbers compounded, it became harder and harder to track the individuals, and I have to admit, hard to even comprehend and make sense of 20,000 deaths let alone 100,000 deaths from coronavirus.
In our scripture today from Matthew, Mary Magdalene and the woman called “the other Mary” are also trying to comprehend death. They are trying to make sense out of what they thought they knew and what has come to pass. The Jesus in whom they had placed their love and trust, who turned water into wine, healed the sick, even raised others from the dead, has himself been crucified. The future they imagined, wiped away. The ground underneath them literally shaking. So what do they do with this tenuous hold on life? Where do they look for the light they have lost? They go to the tomb!
Now that’s an interesting choice. Tombs aren’t places of life. They are separated, often isolated. And this tomb even had guards placed beside it. Not a welcoming place. Not a place to look for life. But in their grief and confusion, they go to the tomb.
When Mary Magdalene and the other Mary arrive at the tomb, they find not guards, but an angel. And the angel says, “I know you are looking for Jesus but he’s not here. He has been raised from the dead.” The two Marys were looking for the living in a place where one would only expect to find death. Going to the tomb is a little bit like looking at the numbers of people who have died. This is looking for the living among the dead. The people’s lives aren’t in the numbers just like Jesus wasn’t in the tomb.
The angel went on to say to the two Marys, “Come, see the place where he lay. …'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.” It’s significant to me that the angel began with “Come and see the place where he lay.” Because the angel knows there is nothing to see there. What there is to see…. is that there is nothing there.
Then the angel follows that up with the real message for the two Marys. The real message for the Marys has three parts. One, Jesus has been raised, Two, He’s going before you and Three, You will see him. The Marys are told to go quickly and deliver this message to the other disciples. It’s as if the angel is saying, “Look here in the tomb if you must, but don’t linger and certainly don’t drop anchor. The life you seek is not in the tomb. This place has nothing for you.”
Isn’t this how it happens sometimes? I don’t know why we as humans are like this, but at the moments when we most need life, we look for it in places we associate with death. When we are engaged in something we know is killing us, instead of moving away from it, we keep doing it. Sometimes we even move toward it. Now that your entire routine has likely been turned upside down, have you noticed there were some things you were doing that were part of your day every day that actually were not giving life to you or anyone? Or maybe it wasn’t so much the things you were doing but the things you weren’t doing? Maybe not taking time to really hear the voices of loved ones, or really feel deep in your bones and in your heart that you are God’s beloved. What tombs have you been spending time in?
So the Marys were doing this too. Why? I think they didn’t know what else to do. I think this is like us, too. It’s not like we don’t have a sense that something we are doing or not doing feels like death. It’s just we don’t know how to stop, or what else to do, or how to do it differently. This is the blessing of this very very difficult time. We’ve been forced to do things differently. In some cases we’ve been alone with ourselves but we’ve never been without Jesus. Remember the three part message: he has been raised, he goes before us, we will see him.
There’s a detail in the scripture for today that’s usually missed. We focus on the empty tomb, the angel’s triumphant message, the promise that we will see Jesus. Or we lift up the admonition that’s given twice in the scripture to “Go and tell” what has happened. All of this is important. But did you notice where the Marys and the other disciples are supposed to go and tell what has happened? Galilee. They are supposed to go to Galilee. That’s where Jesus has gone before them and that’s where they’re told they will see him.
Why Galilee? Galilee was one of the three provinces of Palestine in what is today the northern part of Israel. By some standards, it was considered the most pagan of the Jewish provinces, a place with a lot of diversity, culture and a distinct accent. People in the southern provinces of Palestine, where there was a more thoroughly homogeneous population, were said to regard Galilee with a certain kind of proud contempt. Remember when they said, of Jesus, Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Nazareth is in Galilee.
Galilee was where Jesus began his ministry. His disciples were all Galileans. Many of Jesus’ miracles were performed in Galilee; this was where he preached and was followed by large crowds. Why Galilee? Because the heart of Jesus life was his ministry with the people. This is where he had community. And this was a place of great ministry potential. When Jesus was truly living, he was serving, he was teaching, he was loving. Galilee was the place of life.
Galilee is a reminder that the ministry Jesus began there was to be continued, and not just there but everywhere. Just as the heart of Jesus’ life rested in his ministry, so too would life be found by others in the same way of serving, teaching, healing and loving. There was no point looking for life in the tomb. It wasn’t there. The eternal life that Jesus offered was through what they had already found to be life giving: the relationship with him, the joy of the good news, the community of each other. Matthew’s gospel tells us that indeed they did meet him there, and he tells them to go out and share what they know to be new life, true life. And he says to them, “Remember, I will be with you always, until the end of the age.”
This is the message for us, too, on this Easter Sunday. This is the message of resurrection. The places of death can and have been transformed, new life is always available and offered to you through the power of the risen one, who showed us what real life is. Don’t look for the living among the dead. In places where you have experienced joy and peace and purpose, look for Jesus there. What you know to be life-giving, do more of that. Yes, there is death in the life, but what we know is that there is also life beyond death! It is said that they will know we are Christians by our love, and that is true. But let it also be said that they will know we are Christians by our love of life. Christ is risen and lives among us. Hallelujah! Amen.
Special thanks to...
Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Welcome & Invocation: Rev. Brian Adkins
Liturgists & Readers: Carol Baumbauer, Merrie Bunt, Greg Downs, Akesa Fakava, Rafael & Alice Ferreira, Kiana Jardin, Janene Kuan, Meagan Travlos
Children's Message: Susan Jardin
Special Music: Rev. Jerry Asheim, Judy Kriege, Erin Adachi-Kriege, Michele Arreola-Burl, Cathryn Bruno, Sally Nasman, Charles Lynch, Peterborough Singers, Peterborough, Ontario Canada
Video producers: Anjuli Arreola-Burl, Sally Nasman, Jacob Wilbur
Podcast producer: Ethan Lindsey
Livestream producer: Merrie Bunt
Additional support: Orion Lacey
All those who participated by watching from home!