St. John’s Episcopal Church
207 Albany Avenue, Kingston, NY 12401


  • Suddenly – The Rev. Michelle Meech

    April 09, 2023

    Alleluia. Christ is risen.

    A few years ago, I was walking along Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.  If you’ve never been there, it’s one of the more touristy places in San Francisco, right along the water, filled with souvenir shops, overpriced restaurants, tour buses, and lots and lots of street performers. As you walk along, you are treated to performances by jugglers, musicians, dancers, men in suits spray painted in silver and moving like mechanized robots.  It’s a lot to take in.

    On this day, the sky was bright blue and clear, the breeze from the ocean wasn’t too cold but the sidewalk was packed with pedestrian traffic. And I can’t remember exactly where I was going or why I was there.  All I remember of that day is one particular moment.

    I was walking along trying to maneuver through the crowd and “suddenly,” a man jumped out from behind a bush and scared the living daylights out of me.  I jumped back, gasping in fear and surprise. Some of the crowd of people laughed in response to my shock. You see, this was his street performance – to crouch behind a dried bush that he carried with him and watch for his next target. The people watching were his audience, the ones who dropped money in his bucket.  It was harmless, really.

    Of course, I didn’t do that well with it. I walked on indignantly with a little huff of irritation. But what if I hadn’t been so intent, so distracted by my own agenda? What might I have discovered?

    This story comes to mind because I wonder if Matthew’s sense of humor wasn’t a little bit like this street performer’s.

    We have Jesus couched behind some bushes in the early morning, like a prankster performance artist lying in wait for his friends to come by. And then just at the right moment… “ta-da!”  “Greetings!”

    Matthew uses the word “suddenly” to describe Mary and Mary’s meetings with the angel in white and with Jesus that morning. While still grieving over the torturous death of their friend Mary and Mary wake before dawn to go and prepare his body for burial. But when they get there, “suddenly” there was a great earthquake followed by a shocking scene where a lightning bolt burst open the tomb leaving a figure dressed in white who has the nerve to tell them, “Don’t be afraid.” And I find it interesting that they fare better than the guards who were so frightened they were catatonic.

    Mary and Mary, Matthew tells us, respond with a mixture of “fear and great joy” as they flee the tomb at the angel’s command to “go and tell.” And then Jesus pops up out of nowhere and shouts, “Greetings!” And their response is to drop to their knees.

    That’s what “suddenly” does to us. “Suddenly” jars us out of our everyday patterns and routines. “Suddenly” gives us a sense that we aren’t in control. “Suddenly” shows us that, no matter how hard we try, we cannot plan for everything. “Suddenly” has to be one of the most humbling words in the English language. It brings us to our knees, in a sense, every time.

    But “Suddenly” seems to be how God works. Unexpectedly. Unpredictably. In ways we could not have imagined. We find ourselves broken open. On our knees like Mary and Mary.

    We find all kinds of reasons and ways to protect our hearts from being broken open by God’s Love because we don’t want to be brought to our knees. We don’t want our world to change. Yet, if we listen closely, that’s exactly what our soul is yearning for.

    To be surprised by someone knowing us. To be surprised by someone loving us. To let go of what we think we know and be surprised.

    Let’s open up Matthew’s Gospel a bit so we have some understanding of the storytelling choices he makes. The first thing to understand is that scholars estimate Matthew wrote this Gospel around the year 80 CE, which is about 50 years after the astounding events of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. Jesus’ followers, as we know, were practicing Jews who considered themselves to be a part of a movement within Judaism in the years after Jesus’ death, but certainly not a separate religion.

    Matthew didn’t even bother to describe Jewish practices because he assumed his audience would know the references he was making. And this community kept Jewish law, the Torah or the first 5 books of the Hebrew Scriptures – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. And by the time Matthew was writing, this group was full of second and third generation followers of Jesus – many likely raised by those who knew and followed Jesus, along with some Gentiles, or non-Jews, who had joined. But it was still a movement within Judaism.

    But it’s not just about this small community of Jesus followers in Syria. It’s about the larger context of the Roman Empire. Rome had occupied all of this land for about a century and, of course, rebellions cropped up. All squashed under the weight of the Roman army. Caesar’s army.

    The Jesus movement, as our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry likes to call it, was seen by Rome and by the corrupt members of Jewish leadership, as just another one of these rebellions. In their eyes, Jesus was executed, just like every other rabble-rouser, in order to keep the peace, to keep the Pax Romana. Eventually the Roman government had had enough of this constant drama and, in the year 70, Titus Caesar Vespasianus began his siege of Jerusalem just a few days before Passover… exactly when the most Jewish people would be in Jerusalem. About 4 months later, the Roman army destroyed the Temple.

    The Temple has been the last stronghold of Jewish rebellion and the Jewish people were either killed during the siege or taken into captivity. Many Jewish people were able to flee from Jerusalem, which became the great Jewish diaspora. In the ensuing years, those who were Jesus followers began to start identifying themselves differently – as Christians – in order to distance themselves from their Jewish roots and keep themselves safer.

    It was in this climate that Matthew’s Gospel was written. Paul had been establishing Christian communities amongst non-Jews (or who the Gospels call Gentiles) all over the Mediterranean for a couple of decades already, but the Gospel of Matthew was written to a group of Jewish people in Syria (just north of modern-day Israel and Palestine). But they were not Jewish enough anymore for the synagogues of Syria, where the rabbis would not let them worship with the rest of the Jews.

    I offer all of this context to help us connect with the people for whom this story was originally written. The survival of Judaism itself was in question after the destruction of the Temple and the followers of Jesus were in flux, searching for an identity. For the members of Matthew’s community, at least, the story of Jesus’ resurrection is not only about Jesus himself, but about the hope for the survival of the community and of a way of life.

    The tomb takes on new meaning when we realize that the community saw themselves as being close to death. The Jewish people were thrown into chaos and forced into a drastic change in their way of life. They saw themselves in this tomb of death.

    I’m now in my mid 50’s and the other day I was musing with Deacon Sue. I asked her, “Do you remember… in your 50’s did it feel like the world was falling apart?” The uncontrolled gun violence. Politicians, pundits, and political parties all who care more about staying in power or gaining viewership than in public service. The stripping of women’s right to basic healthcare in so many states. The nightmare of social media and cancel culture. The opioid epidemic. The climate crisis. And, of course, the pandemic.

    To me, it feels like the world is falling apart sometimes. Like we’re being thrown into chaos and drastic change. Like the tomb of death is just one step away.

    What is God’s response to this? What did Matthew’s community believe was God’s response to this? This feeling of already being swallowed up into darkness and death.

    God’s response? Suddenly. Something unexpected. Unpredictable. Something we cannot imagine. We are surprised and we find ourselves broken open. On our knees like Mary and Mary.

    We don’t want our world to change. Yet, if we listen closely, that’s exactly what our soul is yearning for – to suddenly come face to face with God and to be utterly and completely undone by the experience. God’s response to all of this is the invitation to be surprised by the love that is already in the world. To let go of what we think we know and be surprised by the gift of Life all around us.

    Because here’s the thing: the tomb is not real.
    This is the Easter message: The tomb is not real.

    I don’t mean this in some glib way. I mean this in the most tangible, real way possible. The Jewish people found their way. The Jewish faith remains to this day. The community of Matthew found a way. Christians are reading their stories 2000 years later.

    Hate, violence, death… these are never the final word. The final word is always Love.

    Love is the only thing that is real.

    These surprises, these “Suddenlys” are necessary to shake us alive, to awaken us to this truth.

    And I wish I had such abilities as that angel on the rock to shake us all out of our reveries to help us to understand just how profound the love of God is that is awaiting all of us when we believe in that eternal love, beyond anything we can imagine in our fear.

    But I don’t yet have that skill. Because I am still learning to believe. To live my life as a believer.
    To live my life in the belief that the tomb is not real.
    To live believing that Christ is alive. That Christ is risen.
    To believe… truly believe… that the final word is always love.

    Until I do, my hope is in those “suddenlys”.
    Those unexpected moments where, for whatever reason, I’ve laid down my agenda and my doubts long enough to be surprised by God’s wild, unpredictable, scandalous, unbounded Love.

    Alleluia. Christ is risen.