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Here’s the scene:
A large, somewhat plain sanctuary with ornate wood carvings around the chancel. Up front, the altar is decorated with candles and flowers. In the back, the white marble baptismal font is also decorated with flowers. Somewhere in the middle, a tall white candle surrounded by flowers is alight. On the candle are the Greek letters Alpha and Omega – signifying the beginning and the end.
Here are the characters:
A group of about 40 people – some dressed in vestments, some in street clothes.
Here’s the plot:
They have been sitting in candlelight – attentively listening to stories, singing hymns, reciting psalms. When the lights come up, in response to the priest’s proclamation, they all stand and ring bells and sing.
Then they sit back down and the priest, (who reminds some of these good people of Dawn French from the British television series The Vicar of Dibley) gets up and preaches such a fantastic sermon that they are all inspired to follow the Gospel’s command to “go and tell!”
And they leave running from the sanctuary to share their love of God with the first person they meet.
And the congregation grows because people want to be a part of such an enthusiastic, loving community of people who aren’t in it for themselves, but who understand that this thing called “church” is about serving the world. Even if it means getting out of bed early on a Sunday morning.
This is a little different than the scene depicted in the Gospel of Matthew.
In that scene, we have a Middle-Eastern countryside outside the walls of a major city. It is a clear, early morning at the moment of day break and we see two women walking the rolling hills toward a rocky outcropping where a small group of armed guards stands.
The characters, these two women – Mary and Mary, our main characters, are ritual leaders in a community of Jews because of their role in preparing a body for burial. The guards are Roman soldiers dispatched by the local governor at the request of the Jewish leadership, who wanted to make sure the body wasn’t taken.
And the plot is a strange fantastical tale. Because just as Mary and Mary reach the rocks, the earth shakes and a sudden flash moves a huge stone, leaving a gaping hole.
Emerging from the cloud of dust, a figure dressed in white appears casually sitting on the stone. The guards freak out, unable to move or speak. And this figure looks at Mary and Mary and says, “Do not be afraid.”
And the speech continues: “I know you’re looking for Jesus. He’s not here. He said he would be raised up and he has been. Take a look and see for yourself. Now, go and tell his followers. Go to Galilee and you’ll see him.”
Now, I can imagine Mary and Mary, even though they were told “Do not be afraid,” were probably a little freaked out – a mix of fear and “great joy” is what we’re told they were experiencing. A set of emotions that accompanies us all when we are just doing every day things, living our everyday unremarkable lives and then something utterly unexpected happens. We’re so shaken that we still haven’t adjusted, still haven’t believed this new reality. Yet, so powerfully inspired were they, that they found themselves following the instructions and running to find their friends to tell them.
And then, my favorite part of the plot:
Before they had the opportunity to question themselves. Before they experienced the nagging doubt that can come creeping in when we’re faced with our world being turned upside down, their friend appears. Shaking Mary and Mary to their core.
Jesus, the prankster (probably sitting behind some bushes along the footpath, anticipating the arrival of his unsuspecting friends, maybe even giggling at the thought of their reaction) jumps in front of Mary and Mary and shouts “Greetings!”
And he echoes the words, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell.”
So, here I am – the priest (who reminds people of the Vicar of Dibley) in the place of the ghostly figure in white who sits casually on a stone and my task is exactly the same.
My words are exactly the same: Do not be afraid, my friends. Go and tell.
I know we’re all here in this church tonight for different reasons, some because it feels good, some because we’re supposed to, some because we’re searching.
I know we’re here looking for Jesus – but Jesus is not here.
At least not only here. Jesus has gone ahead of us to Galilee.
Galilee, the place outside the walls of the church.
The place outside the walls of our hearts.
And, just like in the Gospel story, I promise you’ll meet Jesus on the way, probably in some utterly surprising way.
And this surprise is necessary. We don’t like surprises. We want to know what to expect from our world. We like knowing what is going to happen. We desperately need to have some sense of control over our lives, our surroundings. We expect people to show up how we need them to and we get mad when they don’t. We have opinions about security and safety because we confuse the importance of the things with the importance of their purpose.
And we do this because we expect the tomb of death.
We are sure that there is a tomb of death awaiting us.
And we’d rather not be in it.
This is the way of the world.
But ironically, it’s not real. This world is not real.
This is why the surprise is necessary: Because we believe in the unreal tomb of death.
We believe in it so completely that, unless we have an angel in white standing in front of us appearing out of some pyrotechnic show of fire and smoke, we will just go on about our way believing in death.
What is real is Christ – seen and risen anew in a community that makes the choice to see only through the lens of love and uses that love to see beyond itself.
This is the love that is enteral – the Alpha and the Omega.
And I wish I had such abilities to shake us all out of our reveries to help us to understand just how profound the love of God is that is awaiting all of us when we believe in the eternal Christ – the Alpha and the Omega – the beginning and the end that is beyond anything we can imagine in our narrow understanding of reality governed by the expectations we have of people and the need we have to control our world.
But I don’t yet possess that kind of pyrotechnic skill.
All that I have, all that I can offer you tonight is a deep belief that Christ is alive.
That Christ is here. And that Christ is waiting for us in Galilee.
Galilee – beyond our walls…
In our workplaces.
In our community.
Galilee – in our everyday walk through our everyday life.
Where we will see Jesus and he will take us by surprise:
in the one who irritates us the most,
in the one who is homeless,
in the one who is in need,
in the one who is on the other side of the line we’ve drawn.
And so, on this night, we gather to re-member ourselves.
To remember the stories of how we have come to know God’s hope for us through the stories of our tradition.
To remember that the community of friends is important to us but that the survival of our community is not our purpose.
Our purpose is in Galilee, where we are called to serve.
Our purpose is to go and tell, in Galilee.
Our purpose is to open ourselves to be surprised by Jesus hiding in wait to shake us out of our expectations and fears and need to control.
So, let us re-member ourselves as the Body of Christ in the renewal of our baptismal vows.