Faith Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD
April 9, 2023
Hope beyond Hope
It started with just a little wobble. The water in the glass on the bedside table sloshed from side to side, like someone had accidentally bumped it. Maybe people rolled over in bed, changing positions before falling back to sleep. Some opened their eyes wide, and sat up, adrenaline pumping. Then, they say, there were three big shakes, windows shattering, bookshelves falling, ceiling crumbling overhead, while the earth rolled for almost a minute. When it became still, the alarms started to wail – fire alarms, car alarms, ambulances and police – echoing through the city. People began to make their way into the street, shivering with shock in the cold night air. Terrified doesn’t begin to describe it. But then, and this is the amazing thing to me, these people, these survivors – they turned to the houses and apartment buildings up and down their streets, houses and apartments that had collapsed into piles of rubble – people in the pajamas, in absolute shock, with their bare hands, they began to search for other survivors. They dug through the rubble. Moved concrete. One woman who had been trapped up to her neck, buried alive in her own bedroom, was rescued by a neighbor who had nothing but a spoon for digging.
Our news cycle has moved on from the devastating earthquakes that struck Syria and Turkey about 2 months ago. But if you’ve been paying attention, you know that it was and is an incomprehensible tragedy. More than 65,000 people were killed in the quake. Entire towns were obliterated. Thousands of children orphaned. More than a million displaced.
An earthquake shakes and breaks; it takes the world as we know it and remakes it in mere minutes into something else entirely, an unrecognizable place. Those who survive are forever changed, marked by the experience – haunted by it.
Now don’t get me wrong. Not every quake is catastrophic. Most aren’t, in fact – any resident of California can tell you that. Some just unsettle us, reminding us the earth is not as stable as we like to imagine it to be. It’s an eerie feeling, when the ground shifts under your feet.
In Matthew’s account of the crucifixion and resurrection, the earth itself shakes; first when Christ dies, and then again when the tomb is opened and found to be empty. Total upheaval, both above and below. An earthquake shifts the ground at Golgotha, causing the soldiers and the women gathered there to stumble. Then, an earthquake shakes the ground again three days later, tectonic plates slipping and pushing away anything that would stand in God’s way, moving the stone from the mouth of the tomb.
Matthew tells us the earthquake on Easter is caused by an angel as bright as lightning, who lands and lounges on top of the stone. Can you picture it? and the guards, the men posted by Pilate to guard the tomb and protect the body, the guards are frozen with fear. Terrified doesn’t begin to describe it. Are they afraid of the earthquake, or the angel? Both, maybe. I think I would be too. Remember that angels often greet people by telling them: Do not be afraid! So they must be pretty terrifying.
I wonder what the women thought? Weary and wary, they went as soon as they could to grieve at the grave of their friend. Surely they were afraid of the soldiers, but their love for Jesus was greater than their fear. Did they fall to the ground when the earth shook, did they shield their eyes and hide their faces as the angel settled on the stone? And when they heard him speak, his unbelievable instructions to look in the tomb, to find it empty, and then to go and tell the others that Christ who was crucified has been raised – did they move right away? Or were they frozen in place, blinking back tears, shivering with shock in the cold morning air? Eventually they must have moved, screwed their courage to the sticking place and stooped to look, and found – nothing. No body, even though they’d watched as he’d been laid there just two days prior.
Then, Matthew tells us, they left with fear and great joy, running to tell the others. Fear and great joy! Sounds like a description of awe to me – a sense of mystery and wonder at something that we don’t understand. Somehow, the ground has shifted beneath their feet! After all, an earthquake shakes and breaks; it takes the world as we know it and remakes it in mere minutes into something else entirely. We who witness the awesome power of God are forever changed, marked by the experience. Resurrection! Could it be true? Do we dare to believe it? And if we do, what difference does it make for us? For the world?
I listened to a conversation between Dacher Keltner and Krista Tippett recently. Keltner is a neuroscientist at Berkeley, a pioneer in the study of human emotions, who lately has focused on the experience of awe; that is: a sense of mystery and wonder that transcends our understanding, and calms our minds and bodies – regulating our heartbeats, decreasing cortisol, smoothing out our nervous system, boosting our immune system, and bringing us in sync with those around us. Through his research, he discovered what causes us to experience awe. He found that more than anything else; more than being in nature, more than practicing religion, what leads people to feel awe most often is … other people. Specifically, an experience of the moral beauty of others: kindness, courage, strength, or overcoming obstacles. When we witness ordinary people doing amazing things, our breath catches in our throats, our eyes tear up. We are, for a moment, overcome.
I am overcome thinking about the courage of those women, the Marys. Terrified by the soldiers who killed their friend, shaken by an earthquake, greeted by an angel, and brave enough to run to tell the others what they’ve seen and heard. In their awe, they meet the risen Christ along the way! Through their courage, we, too, have witnessed resurrection! We have seen our Lord!
I am overcome thinking about the survivors in Turkey. Feet jammed into shoes, jackets thrown over jammies, shivering with shock, yet still digging through rubble with their bare hands to help their neighbors who have been buried alive. We have witnessed resurrection.
I am overcome thinking about the brave legislators in Tennessee, Representatives Justin Jones, Gloria Johnson, and Justin Pearson. Have you been paying attention to what’s happening there? Three representatives protested the legislature’s refusal to act following the school shooting in Nashville, and their colleagues didn’t just censure them – they voted to expel two of them, the two black men, the Justins, from their body completely. Seeking to silence their advocacy for peace, and preventing their constituents, the people of Memphis, from having representation in the statehouse. But they will not be silenced. If anything, their voices have been amplified by what has happened, there is hope yet that schools and neighborhoods might be made safe for children again through common sense gun reform. Their courage, their refusal to back down has inspired awe. They are ordinary people doing amazing things.
Ordinary people do amazing things at Faith Church. You do it all the time. You care for one another. Celebrate each other, mark milestones with much rejoicing. You speak out against violence and keep vigil through the night. You sing and pray with each other, and for our city, our hurting world. You share what you have so that others might have enough. You break bread together and welcome all who are hungry to feast. You light candles, you double and triple check to make sure they are blown out. You come early, very early some days, you stay late. You wash dishes, you clean up, you put out chairs, you break down tables, you carry water, you bring spices to prepare the body. You sit with each other through grief. And in doing these things, even if you are sometimes afraid, you are, I hope, sometimes also surprised by joy. And inspired by the courage of those around you.
The good news of this Easter day is that despite the persistence of death, the prevalence of violence, the pain and the suffering of this world, there was a time when death did not win. When the violence of empire was undone by the tenacity of love. When the worst thing was not the last thing. When courageous women and men inspired awe in all who heard and believed and shared the truth of resurrection – the earth shaking power of God to bring forth life from the tomb, to resurrect, to revive, and renew, to remake the world as we know it in an instant.
The old ways of the world are dying, and new ones are being born. It is awesome. And I thank God that ordinary people like those women, like you and me, get to be part of it. And so let’s go, and tell the world: Christ is risen – he is risen indeed.
 I read many accounts from survivors in articles from the BBC and World Vision’s coverage of the earthquakes and their aftermath to create this section.
 Tippett, Krista interviewing Dacher Keltner in “Dacher Keltner and the Thrilling New Science of Awe,” On Being podcast, 2/2/23, https://onbeing.org/programs/dacher-keltner-the-thrilling-new-science-of-awe/#transcript