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The Reverend Matt Gaventa
April 18, 2017
A Reading from the Gospel of Matthew
After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “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. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
My favorite author is not Marilynne Robinson or Cormac McCarthy, though that’s what I usually say at cocktail parties to sound impressive. But my real favorite author, my wrap-yourself-in-their-words-like-a-warm-blanket author, my cue-them-up-with-a-glass-of-lemonade-and-a-cool-breeze author, my best-enjoyed-with-a-kindergartener-sitting-on-your-lap author is Mo Willems, creator of perennial preschool favorites like Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, Edwina the Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct, and my personal favorite, the continuing saga of Elephant and Piggie.
Elephant and Piggie are best friends who could not be more different; Elephant is cautious and careful; Piggie is adventurous and carefree. And I will admit to you that the adventures that Elephant and Piggie have are not large. These are not globe-spanning books. The plots go like: oh my gosh, Gerald — the elephant’s name is Gerald — “Oh my gosh, Gerald, There Is a Bird on Your Head!” What makes the books work isn’t the intricacy of the plots or the lavishness of the art. What makes the books work is that Willems has figured out how to turn the repetitive words and comfortable phrases and rhythms that young readers need into something really absurdly funny. “There is a bird on your head!” “There is a bird on my head? Aaahhh!” “Is there a bird on my head now?” “No, now there are two bird son your head.” It’s hard to do it justice, so if you’re skeptical, I take it all back. David Sedaris. Let’s just say David Sedaris.
But really. The best of the Elephant and Piggie series takes this humor to its most ridiculous extreme, when elephant begins one of these books by realizing, much to his own shock, that somebody is watching them. “Is it a monster?” Gerald asks, staring almost directly back out of the page, at which point Piggie looks in the same direction and comes to a spectacular conclusion. “No! It is … a reader! A reader is reading us!” he exclaims, staring me directly in the eyes. This, as you might imagine, is an unnerving epiphany — for Elephant and Piggie, to be sure; I don’t know what it’s like to realize that you are a fictional character but I can imagine it to be a bit troubling. But Elephant and Piggie recover quickly, because they realize that if they have a reader, they can make the reader do all kinds of silly things. “You can make the reader say a word?” Elephant asks, and Piggie says, “I can — if the reader reads out loud.” At which point I am forced to say words like “Banana” and Elephant and Piggie laugh hysterically. Because they’ve realized that if, as the title says, We are in a Book, that it’s not just them. That I’m in there, too.
It’s an odd thing to become part of a story that you thought you were reading from a safe distance. But it is the turn very much at the heart of this wondrous Easter tale. The version from Matthew’s Gospel that we heard this morning tells of two women, Mary and Mary Magdalene, who come to the tomb of Jesus on the morning after the Sabbath, two nights after his death. They come to see. “They went to see the tomb,” Matthew says — not for conversation, not for assignment. They have not come to find Jesus risen from the grave. They come out of curiosity. They’re just looking. They’re just scoping it out. These two women are almost entirely left out of the rest of Matthew’s Gospel; by this point in the story nobody would expect them to have anything but the most peripheral role in whatever story we have left to tell; these are bystander characters, peering in from the margins, eavesdropping on the Gospel. Reading from a safe distance.
And then they discover, much to their shock and ours, that they are in the book. You know this part: the angel of the Lord comes, there’s an earthquake, the stone gets rolled back, the guards shake. At first the angel is entirely willing to let these women continue their spectatorship: “I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified,” he says. “He is not here, he has been raised, come see the place where he lay.” But then the angel stares out of the page and yanks these readers right into the story: “Go, quickly, and tell his disciples.” And then all of a sudden these women, sidelined for so much of Matthew’s Gospel, all of a sudden the safe distance isn’t so safe and it isn’t so distant, all of a sudden the story of Easter morning itself rests on them and runs through them. God has intervened against the brutal constancy of the universe; God has triumphed over death itself; God has raised Jesus from the grave; but, this next part is on them. No wonder they go from the tomb with fear. Reading a book is easy, wrap-yourself-in-its-words-like-a-warm-blanket easy. Being in a book is terrifying.
It is at this point, after all, that Elephant and Piggie takes a rather haunting turn, as Elephant realizes that if they are in a book, at some point, the book is going to end. “ENDS? THE BOOK ENDS?” Gerald screams. “When will the book end?” Piggie points out the page numbers in the corner, they’re counting up with every turn, and they can only go so high. The clock is ticking, every word puts us just a little closer to the end, and at this point I feel a tremendous weight upon myself; now, I’m responsible; if I keep reading, what becomes of Elephant and Piggie? “This book is going too fast!” Elephant cries. “I have more to give!” And I feel like I want to apologize to them: look, I never would have opened this book if I’d known that the stakes were going to be so high. I just wanted an easy read. I just wanted to wrap myself up in it. I was just looking. I just wanted to hear the old familiar words and the familiar phrases. But now we’re in this thing, together; now, we’re in this book, together. And the only solution, for Elephant and Piggie, the only solution in the universe of Mo Willems, the only solution when you get to the end of the book and the numbers stop going up, the only solution is to turn back to the beginning and read the book again. The only solution, once you’re in the story, is to keep telling it.
This is the intricacy, and the majesty, of the Easter story. None of the four Gospels give us direct accounts of God opening up the tomb or Jesus getting up out of the grave. There does not exist Matthew chapter 27 verse 67 “And then Jesus came back to life.” What we have, in every instance, is a story about a story. A story about the first ones who heard this transformative news, about what they did, and how they reacted, and who they told. A story about these people who fell into a book, who fell into the book, who fell into the Gospel itself, and a story about the storytellers that they became. And of course none of them set out to become the story. Mary and Mary — they’re just looking, they’re just curious, they’re not here to get involved. Even the disciples never signed up to be the center of attention — they were just looking, they were just curious, they were just following along to see what would happen next. But of course what happened next was them. Jesus died; Jesus came back to life; and all of a sudden, the story was about them. All of a sudden, the story was them, not because they deserved it, and not because they earned it, and not even because they wanted it, but just because the story of God was too big for any of them to resist it, and then, all of a sudden, they were in the book. All of a sudden, they were the storytellers.
And of course we are in this book, too. This is the story of God who came for the whole world, who died for the whole world, and who rose again to sever the power of death itself over the whole world, and so of course we are in this story, too, and it is a story that needs telling. You and I both know that the world that meets us this morning is a dark place. We stand here to proclaim God’s victory over sin and death and yet sin and death seem undeterred. We stand here in a world that knows too much of grief, and of sorrow, and of violence. We come from a creation that has known too much of the dark. But Easter always begins in the dark, with these two women, up before the dawn, just curious, just looking, come to see the grave. And then, one candle, one flickering light, one ray of the sunrise beating its fragile path across the stage, and then, of course, it breaks over the horizon, and the beams flood in through the windows and the fill comes in from the balcony and behind and everywhere and then the house lights come up. And now everybody can see. And now we can see the story on the stage and now the story can see us. And now we’re all in it together. That’s the power, and the danger, and the glory of this Easter morning. It’s the moment when the story looks back, and looks us right in the eyes. “It is a reader! A reader is reading us!” And then, all of a sudden, we are on the stage. And then, all of a sudden, we are in the story. And then, all of a sudden, we are in the book together. Even me. And yes, even you.
When I was about thirteen, my family moved from Atlanta, Georgia to Princeton, New Jersey, and we began the work of looking for a church. When we had moved to Atlanta it had taken us about two years to find a church home, so I was not enthusiastic to try this again. But then we dipped our toe a bit in the life of this church downtown — you know, just looking, just curious. And we got curious enough that we decided we’d go to one of their Saturday morning new member’s classes. And we were sitting at this breakfast table in the church fellowship hall, and this woman came up to us. Her name was Sue Ellen Page. She was the church Director of Music for Children and Youth. She was a force to be reckoned with, though I did not know it at the time. She sat down opposite us, introduced herself, and let us introduce ourselves, and we gave our spiel — you know, we’re new in town, we’re just trying to find the right place, we’re just looking, we’re just curious. And then at least in my memory she got tired of listening to our talk. I think she’d heard it before. And she looked me right in the eyes and she said, “Well, of course, you’ll want to sing in the youth choir. It’s what all the cool kids do.”
I protested, of course. I was 13, and protest was my speciality. After all, this wasn’t my church, these weren’t my people, I was just visiting, I was just looking, I couldn’t possibly belong. And besides, my voice was changing, it was cracking, I had no business trying to stand in a choir and sing a piece of music. I was doing her a favor by saying no, I wouldn’t want to open my mouth and mess up her harmony. I mean, they work so hard on it, and I don’t want to get in the way. Surely they could do their work better without my help. But of course their work wasn’t just to sing the music on key. Their work was to tell a story. Their work was to tell a story about the goodness and the graciousness and mercy of God. Their work was to tell a story about the power of God who has overcome the grave and so who are we to stand in the way. Their work was to tell a story about God who has a place for all of us, who has a part for all of us, who has work for all of us, even for a stubborn kid with a cracking voice and a bad attitude. So of course eventually I said yes. I told you she was a force to be reckoned with. Eventually I said yes, because my defenses were no match for the story of God that needed to be told. Eventually I said yes, because everybody did. Even the cool kids. And even me.
Even now. At the close of our worship service this morning, anybody here who feels called will be welcome forward to join our choir in the singing of the Hallelujah Chorus. And some of you will rush forward because you can wrap yourself in these words like a warm blanket and some of you will hang back and I am not Sue Ellen Page and I cannot make you sing. What I know is this. Whether you join the choir or not, these words are yours. Hallelujah, Hallelujah! Whether you can sing them or not, these words are yours. Hallelujah, Hallelujah! Whether you are looking or whether you are found, these words are yours, this story is yours. For the Lord God Omnipotent Reigneth. Hallelujah! This story is yours, this story is all of ours, because we belong to it, because the story has been reading us for as long as we have been reading it, because it is the story of the grace of God that runs from the first day until the last, from that first Easter morning until this one; Hallelujah! It is the story of the grace of God who has overcome the grave and also loves you. And he shall reign for ever and ever. Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Christ is risen! Even for the cool kids. Christ is risen! Even for me. Christ is risen! Even for you. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!