April 9 | Easter Sunday | Easter Pilgrimage: The Great Unsettling





Easter Pilgrimage: The Great Unsettling
Text: Matthew 27:45-54; 28:1-10126
Speaker: Joel Miller

When I say Christ is risen, you say Christ is risen indeed!
Christ is Risen…
Christ is Risen…

No need to respond out loud for this, but if you were to complete this sentence, what word might you choose? 

Of all the Sundays of the year, Easter is the most  ____________ .

How about: The most joyful.  The most celebratory.  The most hopeful.

For this congregation Easter Sunday is the most floral; the most likely Sunday to dress up; the most Episcopalian we get in our Communion liturgy; and definitely the most brunchy.   

And if we were to answer this question from a theological or spiritual pilgrimage perspective – What would we say?  Of all the Sundays of the year, Easter is the most ___________.   I imagine our responses would range all the way from the most comforting to the most confusing. 

Unless we’re so overly familiar with these stories that we’ve stopped paying attention, crucified saviors and empty tombs and resurrection appearances are bound to evoke some kind of visceral response.  There is great comfort in the proclamation that the grave never has the last word, that death is swallowed up in life.  There is great confusion in the picture of a dead man vacating his tomb, appearing to the women, saying, “Greetings!”  Saying “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”       

Easter is all these things.  Joyful; colorful, dressed-up, and delicious; comforting and confusing.  And, I’ll add one more: Unsettling.  Of all the Sundays of the year, Easter is the most unsettling.

Matthew has a unique way of telling this. 

When Jesus cries aloud on the cross and breathes his last, the earth shakes, rocks split.  And when the two Marys arrive at Jesus’ tomb, there is “a great earthquake.”

Symbolically, the shaking of the earth was associated with apocalypse.  An unveiling.  A sign that the old order was coming to an end. 
Experientially, earthquakes are a reminder that even the things we thought were most settled, can be shaken.  We have expressions like someone is well-grounded, or something has a solid foundation, or it’s resting on bedrock.  It means it’s about as solid as it can get. 

Around here we recognize that the top couple feet of ground can heave and shrink with the cycles of freezing and thawing, but if you get below that, pour your footer below frost line, you’re solid.  I’ve read that one of the reasons Intel decided to build these new massive chip manufacturing fabs in Central Ohio wasn’t just because of the available land and government subsidies, although those sure help, but the fact that Licking County has barely moved the needle on the Richter scale. We are, for the most part, solid and settled, something essential for the making of these highly sensitive computer chips. Here in the Midwest even the ground is conservative.   

We’ve seen a lot of suffering recently in places like Turkey and Syria that are situated on less solid ground.

Physical earthquakes are major historical events, yet Matthew is the only gospel to narrate the shaking of the earth during Jesus’ death and resurrection.  He’s likely more interested in theology than seismology, although it has the same underlying message:  Everything you thought you knew about the world, everything you considered most certain and solid and settled…Well…Behold, the great unsettling. 

An innocent man and representative of the Creator is crucified at the hands of the two institutions that hold up the world: The political order and the religious order.  Jesus cries out and breathes his last. And the earth shakes. 

The great unsettling. 

Even death doesn’t hold the power and finality we give it.  The earth shakes again, the stones give way, and the resurrected Jesus says “Greetings!  Do not be afraid.” 

Whatever we thought was most solid in the ordering of our lives – that’s what shook when Jesus died.  And that’s what shook again when he was raised up.

To add to the shake up Matthew doesn’t limit resurrection to Jesus.  In another wrinkle found in no other gospel Matthew tells of other tombs being opened when the earth shakes as Jesus dies.  The NRSV keeps the ancient euphemism for death as “fallen asleep” and translates it this way:  Matthew 27:51-53: “The earth shook, and the rocks were split.  The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.  After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” 

I guess that makes this the original zombie apocalypse?  Only rather than the living getting turned into the living dead, everyone gets transformed into the living living.  Just because you breathe and have a pulse doesn’t mean you’re fully alive.  But when the prophet Ezekiel and Queen Esther come waltzing across your front lawn, robed in light and shouting Hallelujah – that ought to do it.

Matthew’s imagery of earthquakes, empty tombs, and asleep-no-more sashaying saints, raises all the questions we might ask ourselves around this most sacred of days.  What, exactly, are we talking about here?  Did the earth actually shake, and does it matter?  Did those bodies – particularly Jesus’ body – really come back to life?  Are we talking about resuscitation or are we talking about resurrection? And what’s the difference?  Do I have to absolutely believe certain things about this to be in the club?       

A few weeks ago I cited Sophie Strand’s book The Flowering Wand: Rewilding the Masculine.  In the final chapters she wonders out loud about the effects resurrection theology has had on the history of Christianity.  She suggests that this rabbi with nature-based teachings has been denied what she calls “that holiest of rites: internment and reintegration into the earth of his homeland.”  We have removed his body from the virtuous cycle of compost.  To be “planted in the ground he so loved,” and thus to flower, integrated with ecology rather than separated from it (pp. 138-139).

Episcopal priest and mystic Cynthia Bourgeault takes a different approach in her book The Wisdom Jesus.  She writes:

“There are many skeptics who say that resurrection is a myth, that Jesus never rose.  I myself believe he did, and I stand my ground with Christian tradition when I affirm that his resurrection does indeed make a profound difference to how we live here and now.  I am not saying this out of blind adherence to any creedal statements, but out of my own inner work.  In this work I have been helped immeasurably by spiritual teachers from other traditions who maintain that taking up one’s body after death is by no means that unusual a spiritual feat.  When a certain level of spiritual luminosity has been attained (which Jesus certainly manifested) it’s not in fact all that difficult to regenerate physical form” (pp. 132-133).

There are any number of ways Sophie Strand or Cynthia Bourgeault’s approach to resurrection might be comforting or confusing or unsettling.   

If there’s one thing that is clear in the scriptures, it’s that resurrection is not an intellectual exercise, but an experience, an encounter.  It’s something that happens to you. 

In Matthew it’s these two women, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary,” who are the first like us –  those who have not yet died, those who encounter resurrection. 

After going to see the tomb at dawn on the first day of the week, after the great earthquake, and the descending angel, they are told by this angel that Jesus is not here.  He has been raised from the dead.  To this they respond in this way, Matthew 28:8: “So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.”

When the world you thought you knew becomes unsettled, it’s fearful because the old categories no longer function.  The maps stop working.  The containers you’ve so carefully constructed no longer hold what you need them to hold. 

And when the world you thought you knew becomes unsettled, it’s joyful for the very same reasons.  The containers can’t hold what they previously held because there’s so much more to be held.  The maps no longer work because the world is no longer two dimensional.  It’s expanding outward and inward in all directions at the same time. 

The women have fear and great joy.  And as they go, running, it says, to tell the others, the crucified risen one meets them on the way and says: “Greetings…Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

When the brothers and whoever else do meet Jesus in Galilee he will instruct them to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey everything he taught.  And to remember that he is with them always, to the very end of the age.  This is how Matthew’s gospel ends.

The movement will indeed spread to the ends of the earth.  In the name of Christ there will be martyrs and emperors and monastics and scholars and crusades and mystics and inquisitions and reformations and settler colonialism and enslavement and liberation and holocausts and reparation and us, now, here at the end of the age, so far.  

Jesus has promised to be with us.  Still teaching, still comforting, still unsettling.  Like the women at the tomb, we will be unmade and remade.  We will have fear and great joy.  And we will have company.  Ezekiel and Esther, Ruth and Isaiah, Peter, Paul and the Marys, Augustine of Hippo and Francis of Assisi and Julian of Norwich, and Menno and Dorothy Day and those whose stories were never told will be running through the streets, dancing across lawns and over fences and border walls, robed in light, disguised as strangers and birds and vines, shouting Hallelulah.  Whispering “Do not be afraid.”  Assuring us that we too are part of the body of Christ, resurrection in real time, molecules and cells in motion, enlivened by love, expanding in all directions. 

Hallelujah.  Christ is Risen indeed.