Iman Amrani had just settled in to begin her volunteer work teaching school in Bombita, on the north coast of the Dominican Republic about 150 miles from the Haitian capital, Port au Prince. Shortly after her arrival, on January 12, 2010, her whole world changed.
Here’s her story: “I was just finishing my letter to Sally on the computers in the school. Exactly where I am sitting as I type right now, as it happens. I had been feeling a little funny in the day so when I felt a little shaky I thought I was just having another dizzy spell until I noticed that all the computers were trembling and my keys were rattling on the table. Hmm, I thought to myself, I think this might be an earthquake.
I got up just to check and sure enough the ground underneath me was unstable…I started trying to piece together those bits of information you hear…in geography lessons as a kid that tell you what to do in an earthquake. Was it stand in a doorframe or get under the table? I´m sure I had heard something about going to an open space.
[It’s so strange to look up and see] fields of sugarcane and the mountains beyond and everything is wobbling. Your natural reaction is to look for somewhere stable but when you realise there isn’t anywhere, you feel a bit lost.
The way Matthew’s gospel tells it, there was an earthquake that first Easter, too. While all the gospel writers tell some version of the resurrection story, Matthew’s is perhaps the most dramatic, told with great flourish.
After a long, dark night, dawn was creeping up around the edges of the earth and two women, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary hurried from Sabbath prayers to the tomb. They were exhausted by the events of the days before. Their puffy eyes burned from crying. They were headed back to the tomb to finish the burial of their friend.
As the story unfolds, there are angels who appear, glowing white in the dawning sun. There’s a stone, a huge and heavy stone, rolled away by superhuman strength. There are guards, all of whom fall out at the scene before them. There’s an unbelievable report that Jesus, the friend they seek, has risen from the dead.
And…there’s an earthquake.
Whether Matthew’s recounting of events means, “Today, just outside of Jerusalem near the cemetery, there were reports of an earthquake measuring 7.3 on the richter scale,” or whether Matthew was using creative license to say—“something so amazing happened that it felt like the very earth moved under our feet, that reality as we knew it began to shift so much that tears ran down our faces at such a mixture of amazement and beauty and fear and disbelief and hope, and everything changed.”
Even though Matthew’s story is different from the other gospel accounts, I’m glad he told the story the way he did, because it seems to me that resurrection is all about being deeply and profoundly unsettled. It’s about heaven and earth colliding and God’s hope-filled and redemptive reality running smack into our very human, hurting reality. And if the earth doesn’t shake when that happens, I can’t imagine when it would.
Try to think how you would have felt if you were one of the Marys that morning. Would you have felt like Iman Amrani, struggling to remember what to do and feeling just a little lost?
For sure, the women felt afraid. We know that because in these short ten verses of Matthew 28, fear is mentioned three times. The women were filled with fear. The angels tell them not to be afraid. And even Jesus, when they saw him, said the same thing.
Because you know they were afraid. Unsettled.
When they’d set out for the tomb that day, the reality of life was right in front of them, raw and crystal clear: powers greater than they had ruled the day. Again. There was nothing they could do: injustice was just a part of life. Yesterday, just like every other day, the sun went down…and then it came up again. People die, their friend died. And dead people stay dead. That’s just the way things are. So when heaven and earth ran straight into each other and even the firm ground under their sandals began to shake and shake and rattle and shake some more, they were afraid. Unsettled.
In the biblical story, angels always seem to be showing up when things get unsettled. I sometimes think of those stories like this:
Something earthshaking happens.
That event is unlike anything in our present reality.
It scares us to death.
An angel shows up, or Jesus appears, and says (a bit disapprovingly), “Don’t be afraid! I’m really disappointed in you; you must not have enough faith.”
But, that can’t be right! There are plenty of reasons in this story to be afraid. Realities are colliding and everything is shifting; the ground is moving under their feet! Of course they feel afraid.
Maybe the message at the tomb that day was something more like this: “Heaven and earth are colliding here; your world is being shaken. Of course you feel afraid, unsettled. There’s very little here that is even recognizable. But I’m here to tell you: in the middle of all this unsettled shaking, there is nothing to fear.”
Not, “Too bad you don’t have enough faith to stare resurrection in the face and keep right on going like you expected it all along.” But, “In all the shaking and roiling and changing and shifting, there is nothing here to fear.”
Instead, in the shaking of the earth a new reality is being born. It’s the reality of resurrection, of God’s triumph over all the evil, limiting, oppressive powers of our humanity.
What you’ve always known is now, decidedly, unsettled…a sure sign that God has shown up.
Today we celebrate resurrection. This morning we awoke, with dawn creeping up around the edges of the earth, and struggled through our morning routine to get to church. Some of us are exhausted by the events of the days just gone by. Some of us have puffy eyes that burn from all our crying. All of us carry the heavy burdens of our humanity.
We look around us and we see powers greater than we are, ruling the day. Again. It seems like there’s nothing we can do: injustice is just a part of life. Yesterday, just like every other day, the sun went down…and then it rose again. People die. And dead people stay dead.
Until a Savior dies on a cross to break the power of everything that enslaves or oppresses or distorts or destroys our humanity.
Until God gathers all our pain and sorrow and suffering and sadness and loss and death and turns it all into new life.
Until we look up from our individual, myopic pain and recognize God’s Spirit, alive and well in this community.
Until we realize that God loves this whole world, and that there is no one who is beyond the grace and mercy and love of God—not you, not me, not anybody.
Until, right in the middle of our breathtaking fear we know: hope out of hopelessness and life out of death.
Until earth and heaven collide and the earth shakes under our feet and God himself appears and we are so totally, completely…unsettled!
A few weeks ago I was driving through Richmond, Virginia when I noticed a billboard. In general, driving past billboards down South often provides fodder for sermons…or other conversation.
This billboard was a huge, black sign meant to be a heart monitor. To the left of the sign a red line zig-zagged up and down, up and down, until suddenly it flatlined.
Underneath the red line, in startling print, words read: “When you die, you will meet God.”
That sign is wrong. Dead wrong.
When we live—to be quite sure—we will meet God. Because today is resurrection. Today earth and heaven collide and the very earth on which we stand moves under our feet. Today is a day to remember that God’s not waiting around to meet us when we die.
God will meet us in a cemetery at the first light of morning. God will meet us in the grief of a goodbye. God will meet us in all the injustice that threatens to swallow us whole.
In all these moments and others, as the women at the tomb, we will meet God. And when that happens, the earth as we know it will move. In the presence and promise of resurrection, we should be deeply, profoundly…unsettled.
And…there is nothing here to fear.