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Carolyn L. Roberts
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This Week's Sermon (for recent sermons, please click here.)

When Death Has Done Its Worst

20 April 2014
Carolyn L Roberts
Matthew 28.1-10

      What we see depends in part on what we expect to see. Barbara Brown Taylor shares the story of scientists conducting an experiment. Researchers sit you down at a table in front of an ordinary deck of cards and they flash six of them at you, asking you to identify them as fast as you can–nine of diamonds, three of hearts, jack of clubs–whoops! What was that one? Then they repeat the exercise, slowing it down a little so you can get the ones you missed the first time. Nine of diamonds, three of hearts, jack of clubs...still a miss on one. The third time is so slow that you think you must be an idiot: nine of diamonds, three of hearts, jack of clubs...and still there is one card you simply cannot identify. You think you know what it is, but you’re not sure, and it’s not till the cards are all laid face up on the table...that you can see what the problem is. The mystery card is a six of spades, only it is red, not black. The deck has been fixed. The rules have been changed, rules that prevented you from seeing what was there. You could not see a red spade because spades are supposed to be black.1,157

      Matthew’s gospel tells us that early on the day after the sabbath, that is, early on the Sunday morning following Jesus’ crucifixion, the two Marys go to visit the tomb. We know what those visits are like. For those whose grief is still fresh, the tomb is a place to acknowledge the depth of your loss; it’s the last place where there was any physical, earthly presence of the one you loved. It may be a place to talk to your loved one, to feel close to her presence, his spirit. But a tomb is not the place you go expecting to see a resuscitated corpse. Ever. It doesn’t matter how many times all the cards are laid on the table; at the tomb it’s still a full deck with very fixed rules.

      That’s the set-up when the two Marys go to visit Jesus’ tomb. Like many before him, Jesus is just one more dead Jew. One more good man brutally killed in the name of imperial power. The Marys know the rules from that deck of cards only too well, yet in their grief, they still go. Only God has changed the rules. Mary and Mary do not see what they expect. Matthew tells us there is an earthquake; literally or figuratively, it doesn’t matter which, they are looking at a deck that’s got a red spade. Matthew puts it this way: an angel opens the tomb, and says to Mary Mary that Jesus is not there, that Jesus has been raised. In rapid fire, the angel goes on to give Mary and Mary instructions: they are to tell the news to the other disciples, and they will see Jesus in Galilee. In other words, the disciples are to go back to the place where it all began.

      Back to where it began. In addition to the events of Holy Week, last week saw the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon since horrendous acts of terrorism claimed the lives of three and maimed and brutalized more than 260 others. And even though some boasted that Boston was the safest place on earth last Tuesday, thanks to increased muscle throughout the area, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in breathing more easily after the anniversary passed without real incident. Stories abound for those who survived the explosions, but the one that caught my heart was the story of Paul and J.P. Norden, two brothers who each lost their right leg a year ago. Like countless others who experience that kind of trauma, the Norden brothers have spent untold hours in surgery, recovery, and physical therapy, all with the goal of healing their bodies and souls and living with their new normal.2

      That new normal will never look exactly like their old normal. Just one of the many reminders of their ordeal will be the need to replace their prosthetic legs. On the average, one lasts about three years. On the other hand, they are alive, so at least some of the possibilities for their futures are open to them. Continuities and discontinuities live side by side, held together in their new reality, their new normal. It is a new normal that now more obviously includes the possibility of violent, ideologically-motivated actions that do as much psychological damage as possible through the personal injury of as many people as possible. But we must be clear: calculated brutality, used to intimidate, to terrorize, to depress, is all part of the fixed rules of the deck of violent power for guerilla terrorists and imperialists alike. We have seen Good Friday all too often.

      But the red spade is played in yet another event of this past week, following yet another Good Friday on Palm Sunday: the shootings of three guests at the Jewish Community Center and Senior Home respectively. The red spade is Mindy Corporan, daughter and mother of two who were killed, Dr. William Lewis Corporon, and his 14-year-old grandson, Reat Griffin Underwood. Mindy spoke at a memorial service for her son and father last Sunday night. She acknowledged the shock, but she also gave witness to the resurrection, giving thanks that both her father and son were together in heaven. She went on to ask for prayers for the third victim, a daughter visiting her mother in the assisted living unit of the Senior Home. That is the red spade: the unadorned testament that Mindy has seen the living Christ and shared the good news of life beyond death through her loving, immediate response to care for a stranger even in the depths of her own pain.

      Mary Luti writes, “The Mercy that gave us Easter is no easier for us to grasp today than it is on any other day. It is always unimaginable, always half-hidden to our hearts. It took a while before the disciples stopped mistaking Jesus for a gardener, a ghost, a stranger. It took more than one visit to the tomb, more than one search of the garden, more than one good cry in the dark before they began to see.”3

      I don’t know what happened after Jesus’ death, what happened in the resurrection. Not one of us here does, and those who lived during that time all tell a different story. But what we each affirm is this: Easter, the resurrection, is God’s “yes” to the worst that death can do. That “yes” is the transforming power of love. God’s love for Jesus; Jesus’ love for God; Jesus’ love for his disciples, for his friends, for his enemies. God’s love for each of us is the red spade. And the blue spade. And the pink, purple, yellow, green, chartreuse and cerise spades. When death has done its worst, it leaves a tomb full of bones. When death has done its worst, God’s love transforms that death into a new normal, and leaves a rainbow future of possibilities that takes us back to where it began. In Galilee. In Boston. In Kansas City. In Germantown.

***

1Taylor, Barbara Brown, “Apocalyptic Figs,” Bread of Angels, Cowley Publications, © 1997.
2http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/injured-survivors-of-boston-marathon-bombing-begin-next-phase-of-their-recovery/2013/05/10/00386820-b8bb-11e2-b94c-b684dda07add_story.html
3Luti, Mary, “Dark Easter,” dailydevotional@ucc.org, April 20, 2014.

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