A sermon given by the Rev. Teri Daily on Easter Sunday 2020…
I have felt only one earthquake in my life. It was when we lived in Conway. I was lying in bed when a rumbling noise began and things began to shake slightly. The rumbling started deep in the ground and seemed to make its way to the surface. More than being scared, I was excited to have felt it, since friends had been posting on Facebook for several days that they were experiencing the tremors.
Earthquakes originate at the level of tectonic plates – irregularly-shaped, huge slabs of rock which make up part of the outer layer of the earth. These plates are always butting up against one another, and earthquakes occur when one plate finally slips under the other. The earth’s crust shakes and ruptures can occur in the earth’s surface.
Although rare, high-magnitude earthquakes can result in substantial loss of human life (and other types of life as well). In 2010 approximately 316,000 people died when an earthquake struck Haiti. There is nothing good about this kind of suffering. But we also have to acknowledge that because earthquakes recycle the earth’s crust, they make life as we know it possible. They regulate the earth’s temperature, concentrate rare metals, form mountains, enrich the soil, and even affect the chemical balance of sea water. They renew the surface of our planet.
Earthquakes have at times been referred to as acts of God – not meaning necessarily that God causes earthquakes (as in makes them happen), but that such natural phenomena are outside the control of human beings. That’s not so true anymore. We know that injecting wastewater into the earth, constructing lakes by damming up a river, fracking, and mining can all cause rock to shift underground. But in the day of the evangelist Matthew, those human activities were less extensive, and some didn’t exist at all. Earthquakes were believed to be acts of God.
More specifically, for Matthew, earthquakes signal the end of the current age and the beginning of something new. Just four chapters before today’s gospel reading, Jesus is sitting on the Mount of Olives. His disciples come and ask: “What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Jesus answers: “Nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs” (Matthew 24:7). For Matthew, earthquakes are a sign that something apocalyptic is taking place, that something new is being birthed.
No wonder Matthew, unlike the other gospel writers, puts earthquakes in his account of both Jesus’ death and his resurrection. At Jesus’ death, Matthew tells us that the earth shook, rocks split, tombs opened up, and the bodies of the saints were raised. After Jesus’ crucifixion, in today’s gospel reading, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph go to the tomb on the first day of the week. Suddenly a great earthquake once again takes place, and an angel comes down from heaven, rolls back the stone, and sits on it.
The guards shake and drop to the ground out of fear. But the women hear the angel say: “Do not be afraid: I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.” Some Jews in Jesus’ time believed that there would be a resurrection at the Day of the Lord, or the Last Day, and Matthew’s understanding seems in keeping with that belief. With the resurrection of Jesus, a huge rupture now exists in the fabric of the world; whatever may have been in the past, something new is being ushered in, right here, right now.
The angel then tells the two Marys to go tell the disciples that Jesus has been raised from the dead and that they will see him in Galilee. The women run to tell the disciples but suddenly, as suddenly as the earthquake had struck moments before, Jesus now greets them. Jesus in the flesh. It’s as if the ground under them shakes once again – an aftershock of sorts. They take hold of his feet and worship him, until Jesus says: “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
To be honest, Matthew’s inclusion of the earthquake seems fitting. Every time we meet the resurrected Christ, we experience an aftershock of the earthquake that took place at the tomb that day in Jerusalem. Our life is shaken up; we are in some way made new – if only we have eyes to see him and ears to hear him. But just as we do not always feel the tremors after an earthquake, so too do we not always recognize the risen Christ when we encounter him.
I looked up what makes some people feel earthquakes and aftershocks when others don’t. Some people are more sensitive to vibration, it seems, but the type of soil beneath you also makes a difference. Soft, loose soil sends to transmit the shaking better than rock does. What, then, is the soft, fertile soil that allows us to recognize the risen Christ? Well, perhaps we can learn from the two Marys.
Matthew attributes a different motivation for the women’s trip to the tomb than do the other evangelists. Mark and Luke speak of the women going to the tomb with spices to prepare Jesus’ body. In Matthew’s gospel, the two women carry no spices. They go “to see the tomb” we are told. See what about the tomb? Jesus had told them he would rise form the dead after three days. Did they go to see for themselves? Did they expect to see Christ, or at least to see the empty tomb? Was faith the good soil on which they were planted, on which they stood?
But there’s something else that we learn about the women from Matthew. They are people who care for others. In his account of Jesus’ crucifixion, Matthew tells us that the women had followed Jesus all the way from Galilee and that they had provided for him. I suspect they had fed him when he was hungry, given him a smile when he was discouraged, listened to him when he needed it, or made clothes for him to wear. These women were attentive to the needs of Jesus, and probably to the needs of others as well.
And, finally, the women don’t allow themselves to be overcome by fear. The guards shake from fear and become like “dead men,” but not the women. Don’t get me wrong – I’m sure their awe crosses over into fear at the tomb that day. Whose wouldn’t? But when the women leave the tomb, they don’t just feel fear – they also experience greatjoy. It’s joy that propels their legs to run with excitement to deliver the message to the other disciples; it’s joy that leads them to grab Jesus’ feet and worship him.
Perhaps the story of the two Marys tells us exactly what we need to do to recognize the risen Christ when we encounter him. 1) Have faith; look for him and expect to see him. 2) Serve others. After all, Matthew’s Jesus tells us just three chapters before today’s gospel reading that when we feed the hungry, give something to drink to the thirsty, welcome a stranger, clothe a person who is naked, or visit someone who is sick or in prison, that we are doing these things to him. 3) We will at times feel fear; that’s reasonable since we follow someone who was crucified. We know what living the kingdom of heaven on earth can mean. But when our joy is greater than our fear, we can go where God is calling us to go. We can go to the Galilees of our own lives where we will surely find Christ waiting for us. These three things are the loose, good soil that allows us to experience the ground-shifting effects of the resurrection and to join with God in making all things new.
Today we are not able to gather as a church community, and many in this country and around the world are mourning the loss of loved ones to Covid-19. Almost all of us are mourning the loss of our lives as we knew them. May we strive to let love and joy lead the way, not fear. May we reach out to those in need – from those struggling with isolation, to those who don’t know where they will find their next or those who are overwhelmed by medical expenses. May we be people of faith, expecting to meet the risen Lord all along the way. And may these encounters shake up our lives, making us and the world around us new.
Alleluia. Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.
 Hannah Ritchie, “What Were the World’s Deadliest Earthquakes?”, Our World in Data, https://ourworldindata.org/the-worlds-deadliest-earthquakes.
 William J. Broad, “Deadly and Yet Necessary, Quakes Renew the Planet,” New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/11/science/deadly-and-yet-necessary-quakes-renew-the-planet.html.
 Ryan Grannon-Doll, “You Didn’t Feel the Earthquake? Here’s Why,” Patch – Swampscott, MA, https://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/11/science/deadly-and-yet-necessary-quakes-renew-the-planet.html.
 Holly Hearon, “Commentary on Matthew 28:1-10,” Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2409.
 Melinda Quivik, “Commentary on Matthew 28:1-10,” Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1990.