Sermon: “Preceding the Dawn”

dawn.jpgBy Bill Wylie-Kellermann, Easter Vigil, April 16, 2017
– St. Peter’s Episcopal and Detroit Catholic Worker

Matthew 281-10

Dan Berrigan, now of blessed memory, who crossed over to the ancestors and saints a year ago this month, has since been repeatedly quoted as saying, “If you want to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood.” Theology in a quip. He also said, though less famously, “It all started with the Resurrection…If only we would have stayed put!”

I love the particulars, the details of Matthew’s story of how Jesus refused to stay put – and more often than not, God is in the details. Let me mention a few unique to Matthew’s Gospel.

The first is the earthquake; Matthew is the only gospel writer to notice it in connection with the resurrection. He underscores the cosmic, world-shaking dimension of the Easter story. For the four decades that we’ve walked the stations from this place, our meditations have always included the crucifixion of earth: the River, the aquafer, the atmosphere, trees and creatures – the earth itself suffering human violence. So there is something wonderfully and radically hopeful about earth shaking with the resurrection. We don’t even need to ask, does resurrection shake the earth? Or does the shaking earth stir humanity from bondage to death, to the pall of consumption, extraction, exploitation? The truth simply is: we’re are at an earth-shattering moment. We pray with our Mother for the rising of the truly New Human.

Matthew’s is also the only resurrection account to mention the military guard at the tomb. Is it a stretch to find here a clue on the connection between resurrection and nonviolence? What’s the relationship between freedom from the fear of death and the capacity to risk the love of enemies. Or the commitment to be a satyagrahi, a truth warrior.

Now there’s something of a backstory to this detail. In the verses prior, following the crucifixion, the religious authorities hustle up to the preatorium to consult with Pilate. They remember vividly what the movement has forgot: Jesus’ threat or promise of resurrection. They worry the disciples will steal the body and propagate a scam worse than the kingdom itself. The rulers anticipate a struggle to control the truth. Just to play this forward – after the resurrection, the women disciples head one direction to tell the men and the soldiers head off the other to the temple precincts with a detailed report. By this account, the authorities are among the first to know what really went down, but they don’t consider it good news. It’s not in their interests. Instead they concoct alternative facts to cover official lies. They pay the soldiers large money to create fake news, a sensational story of grave robbery and political intrigue.

In any event, Pilate is easily convinced of the pot and says, “Take a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.” So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone. (Matt 27:65-66)

Now to the seal. At a certain point it dawned on me that this is not just cementing the stone shut against being moved, but a legal seal, an emblem pressed in the clay, forbidden to break. Under the Governor’s authority, moving the stone is against the law. Given that, there’s something wonderfully sweet, almost funny, picturing the angel, messenger of the Word, rolling back the stone and sitting on it. Almost smug.

I remember precisely the moment when I got that seal thing in my heart. Thirty-five years ago a group of us from around the Midwest who had been engaging in direct action came to feel ready for some kind of stronger, riskier doings. We shared a series of discernment retreats and were drawn to Wurtsmith AFB in northern Michigan where cruise missiles were just then being loaded on to B-52’s, turning them into first-strike weapons.

As we went round the circle, Tom Lumpkin (our priest this night) said, “What I’d like to do is the Easter Vigil liturgy walking onto the base…” I remember an almost audible thump in my chest in recognition. That was exactly what I wanted to do as well. A number of folks in our comunity were part of that action – Mary West, Gordon Judd – Jeanie Wylie wrote about it; Deb Choly and John Zetner met there; Peggy Gavagan and Joel Nigg were also support.

There are three elements of our service this evening, that I’d lift up in the liturgical movement of that action. One, when we lit the paschal candle we simultaneously cut the barbed wire of the fence, bringing light to the circle of darkness which it marked and secured. We understood this as related to the breaking of the seal. Two, half way down the runway, we stopped to renew our baptismal vows. To look toward the loaded B-52’s, there and then, to renounce the Power of Death, Satan and all his works, was a serious and laden vow which we echo in our own this night. Three, at the gates of the high security area, surrounded at gun point with automatic weapons, we shared the eucharist. Blood on the runway and bread in our hands. Location making liturgy and meaning plain.

We come to this our own moment through a Holy Week frought with fear and violence. What began with 59 cruise missiles unleashed against Syria, has escalated to the dropping upon Afghanistan, a MOAB weapon, the “Mother of All Bombs.” This is literally earth shaking with next step up being nuclear. North Korea, stirred by our actions, fires missile tests and parades a massive military. The unspeakable threatens.

How can we join the women disciples in preceding the dawn? Look for despair turning to love, grief to hope, fear to joy and above all freedom.

Since our leaflet for the Wurtsmith action was a small theological tract, I’d like to conclude with it:

We believe that God has already intervened in this dark history of ours.

We believe there is hope. Many people have yielded to despair. They can already hear the terrible sound of the door slamming shut on human history.  But we are here to say otherwise. Someone is hidden at the heart of things, breaking in to break out, on behalf of human life.

We believe that God rules our common history. Not the Soviet Union. Not the United States. Not the NATO or Warsaw Pact forces. Despite their big and competing claims.

We believe that human beings (so says Easter), are free from the power of death in all its forms and delivery systems. We are not stuck with the balance of terror arrangements. We’re not in bondage to these weapons. We are truly and fully free to unmake them. Now. Not tomorrow or next week or next year. But this very morning.

We believe that God who raised Christ from the dead will also quicken our imaginations, and thereby our bodies and lives.

We believe this is the meaning of the resurrection. And we’ve come to say so.


Thank God Jesus didn’t stay put. Alleluia!

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