Reflection: Easter 2020

by Michael Usey

The Antiques Roadshow is a great TV program on PBS. It’s been going for years; it was supposed to have a program in Williamsburg, Virginia, this spring, but it has been rescheduled, along with most everything else. If you haven’t seen it, you should know that it is simply a group of appraisers who travel around the country, rent out convention centers and civic auditoriums, and people by the thousands bring in some object they have found in their house, or at a swap meet, for appraisal, speculating how much something is worth.

Someone will bring in an old clock, a watch, a vase, or a painting, almost anything. The conversation between the appraiser and the owner of the object is recorded. The appraiser will ask for some history on the object, like where did you get it; maybe they found it in a grandparent’s attic. If you bought it, they want to know how much you paid for it. If you inherited it, they want to know something of the family history.

Then the appraiser will talk about what he or she knows about the object, the artist, the date it was created, the general market value of the genre. Then comes the moment the owner, and the audience, are waiting for: the appraiser reveals how much the object is worth at an auction today.  Sometimes the amount is modest; other times it’s exorbitant.

My favorite appraisal was when a woman brought in a strange looking object. She had no idea what it was. It was metal. It looked something like a hat. It had a pointed head, but with no brim. The metal was embossed with a military scene. She found it, she said, wedged into a ceiling joist in the attic of her house. She didn’t know what it was, had no idea what it’s value was. The appraiser identified it as an Italian Renaissance processional helmet, valued at something like $250,000. The next day I climbed into my attic.  The popularity of the show is because we all have this fantasy of finding some treasure hidden in our house.

There is a wonderful rabbinic tale about this. A man left his house and family to find a treasure. He wanted to find the meaning of life, something that he couldn’t find in the hum-drum existence of his own life. So he started on a journey to find a great treasure. The first night he slept out under the stars. Before he climbed under his blanket he took his shoes off, and put them in the road pointing in the direction toward which he was heading. Then he went to sleep. That night a prankster came along, took the man’s shoes and turned them in the opposite direction. So when the man woke up the next morning and put his shoes on, he started out in the direction from which he had come. He traveled some distance, and then noticed a house that looked strangely familiar. He went inside the house and was greeted by a family that also looked remarkably like his family. He settled down there and discovered the treasure that he was looking for. Meaning I think: the treasure we are looking for is right here. We don’t have to go searching for it; we can just open our eyes to see what we already have.  

Many of us have discovered the treasure of homes and family during the Rona virus; many, but not all.  Some cannot go home, being no longer welcome, others have no home to return to; for still others, home is not a happy place. We heard from L-A Hix Tommey yesterday in her Good Friday reflection about the epicenter of the plague in NYC, and how too many people are confined to incredibly small spaces.  If you have a home and it’s mostly happy, that is indeed a treasure.

The appraisal is the most fascinating part of the Roadshow for me. That is when the appraiser will hold up the object, and say, “Do you see this watermark here?” Or, “Do you see this signature down here on the bottom?” Or turn it over, and say, “Do you see this mark? It means something significant.” Or the date that is etched into the object. Then, because of the details, the appraiser will tell you things that you had never dreamed about. If he hadn’t pointed out to you the subtle things, the things that we had overlooked, or things that we probably would consider insignificant, we would not have known the real value of that object. The value is found in the details.

And it’s the same with the stories in the gospels. There are four gospels in our bible: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They all tell the same story, the story of Jesus’ life. Each gospel records a version of the empty tomb, and each record of the resurrection reads pretty much like the next.

If you were to examine them perfunctorily, you wouldn’t notice the subtle differences between them. You would think that Matthew’s version is just like Mark’s, or Luke’s is like John’s. But if you study the details, if you can see the hallmarks, the signatures, the subtleties of coloration within the text, you know that each writer has produced his own version of the story, put his own twist to the story. What I want to point out is one of those details in Matthew’s narrative of the resurrection of our Lord.

The main characters in the resurrection story are always the same; the women. Mary Magdalene is in every gospel. In some gospels other women are listed, sometimes by name. But in Matthew, it is just Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary.” She is not named. It’s just two Marys. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary arrive at the tomb, finding it empty. Imagine while it is still dark walking through the tombs and all that death. Jesus is not there. An angel is there, who says, “He is not here; for he has risen … tell the disciples to go to Galilee.” So they go looking for the disciples. The disciples are hiding someplace, sheltering in place, not brave like the women.  The Marys don’t know where the disciples are. On their way down the road, Jesus himself appears to the two Marys. They recognize him; they fall down and worship him. He says to them, “Tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and I will meet them there.”

So there it is; that’s the detail I want to highlight. “Tell my brothers.” That is unique to Matthew. That’s like some distinct mark on an antique, that phrase it makes it unique and valuable.

Look at it again. Jesus is supposed to say, “Go tell my disciples.” That’s what you expect. That is what Jesus says everyplace else, in every other gospel. Throughout Matthew he refers to his disciples as “disciples,” big surprise. But here, Jesus says, “Go tell my brothers.” This is the only place in the Easter accounts where this word is used. So we have something unique, interesting, and perhaps extremely valuable.

Now if I were an appraiser, and this story were an art object, I’d say, let me tell you something more about this word “brothers.” In biblical texts, when a word like that appears as a surprise, you suspect that it’s there to refer you to another story, an echo of that previous narrative. The books of the Bible do that all the time.  On Wed nights during Lent we’ve been looking at the literary concept of intertextuality.  As I’ve said before, intertextuality is simply one author’s use of another earlier story or text.  Here the meaning of one text is enhanced by the reading of another. The word “brothers” refers to an earlier story in our Bible, the story of Joseph and his brothers.

You know the story of Joseph, with the coat of many colors. Joseph, the favorite son of Jacob, the patriarch. Joseph, hated by his brothers because he was a brat, conceited, arrogant and self-obsessed. His older brothers, who had enough of Joseph, plotted to get rid of him. They dumped him in a well. When a caravan came along heading to Egypt, they sold Joseph to them, and he was taken into slavery in Egypt. 

When I read the story of Joseph, I can sympathize with the older brothers, because Joseph is such a schmuck; he needs to be put in his place. But what the older brothers did was hardly appropriate to the offence. Putting Joseph in his place is one thing; selling him into slavery is quite another.  You know exactly what it is, right? It’s betrayal and abandonment.

Which is exactly what the disciples did to Jesus, who, after pledging their loyalty to him, saying, “We will never leave you,” all forsook him and fled. We looked at betrayal, denial, and defection last Wed night, in light of Judas and Jesus’ response. And Jesus, like Joseph, was sold, for 30 pieces of silver, into captivity. So, “Tell my brothers I will meet them in Galilee,” reminds us of Joseph and his brothers.

Joseph was taken to Egypt. In Egypt he grows up, finds a new life, matures, becomes a different person, rises in prominence, and finally becomes the Prime Minister of Egypt. Then one day, many years after he had been sold to that caravan, his brothers come to Egypt seeking relief from the famine that has spread throughout all the world, except Egypt. The reason it has not affected Egypt is because of Joseph’s brilliant management of the country’s economy. So nations now come to Egypt to ask for food.

Joseph’s brothers come, asking him for food. They don’t recognize Joseph. He has grown up now. They last saw him when he was a boy. Now he is wearing clothes of the Egyptian nobility. But Joseph recognizes them. He tries to deal with them incognito, and officiously, without revealing his identity. But his emotions get the best of him. He begins to weep. He rushes out of the room so that they cannot see him. Then he comes back in, and says, “I am Joseph, your brother, whom you betrayed.”  Now listen to Jesus. “Tell my brothers, [who betrayed me,] that I will meet them in Galilee.

Joseph then sends his brothers to fetch their father, Jacob, who is old, ready to die. Joseph wants to see his father one more time. He also summons the youngest son in the family, Benjamin, who has stayed with old Jacob, their father. There is a family reunion. Then Jacob dies. The brothers, fearing that now that the father is gone, Joseph will seek revenge upon them for what they did to him, fall down and beg for mercy and forgiveness. 

And in one of the most beautiful scenes in all the Bible, Joseph weeps again, and says, “Stop being afraid.” (The exact same thing Jesus said to the two Marys!)  Then these famous words. “As for you, you planned evil against me but God used those same plans for good, and life for many people.”  There you have it. Matthew wants you to think of the Joseph story when you think of the resurrection. He wants you to remember this.  You planned evil against me but God used those same plans for good, and life for many people. The resurrection is God’s answer to the evil of the cross. God met the worst that we could do with the very best that we could imagine.

It is just incredible and astounding the way God deals with us. God takes the evil that we all do, God takes the crimes that we commit against one another, God takes the things that we should not have done, or the things that we did not do but should have done, the Holy One takes the terrible, ugly, cruel things that we do to one another, and to the creation, and says, “You meant this for evil; but I am going to redeem it, and I will weave it into something good.”

To be human is to betray.  We betray those whom we love; we betray our God whom we serve; we even betray our highest and best selves. We have committed moral injury to that which we know is right and true and just and beautiful, so also many of us suffer from what’s now called moral trauma, the searing of our consciences and violation of our deep sense what is right and wrong.

When humanity overcomes this virus, there will be no going back to the way things were.  There will be a new normal. In a similar way, the disciples tried to go back to fishing after Jesus’ death on the cross, but it didn’t take.  William Sloane Coffin who used to be at Riverside Church in Manhattan wrote: “Easter demands not sympathy for the crucified Jesus, but loyalty to the risen Christ. The proof of Easter is not a rolled-away stone, but carried away Christians.”  [repeat]

No matter how much we mess up our lives, God is determined to redeem our lives. God pursues us until God does it. No matter how worthless we may feel that we are, or how insistent we are in acting out this self-assessment of who we are, God is determined that someday we are going to discover that we are daughters and sons of God, offspring of the Most High, and begin to act that way.

Easter is more about what we can imagine than what we can know. What we know is that the dead are dead. What we know is that life is hard. What we know is that the sad way things are is pretty much the way they will always be—except for Easter. Easter is imagining a day when death is defeated, when all death, every form of death, every suffering related to death, every loneliness brought by death, every tear shed because of death, and every power of death will be destroyed. People who imagine such a day live for that day. People who imagine such a day are blessed with a love for life and are already robbing death of its power to destroy. God who brings life from death can change even skeptical, cynical folks like you and me into the hopeful, joyful people of God. 

I recently read a story about a woman named Diane. She grew up in a good and loving home: family outings, birthday parties, softball games, dance classes, even church. But for some reason Diane never felt right about herself, especially when she reached adolescence. In high school the symptoms appeared: drugs, stealing, alcohol, staying out all night, lying about it.

The family was increasingly in crisis, trying to reach out to Diane, and at the same time, trying to maintain some stability in the family life, to hold on to the values that they believed in as a family. There were the rounds of counseling sessions, rehab for Diane, tough love, tears, prayers. But the more her parents reached out to her, the more defiant she became. Finally she ran away from home. She started living the kind of life that she now says she doesn’t even want to talk about. In her late twenties, things began to change. She talked about what had happened to her.

At first I felt my parents’ love was unnecessary. It was smothering love. Then as things got worse, I began to feel unlovable. I think I resented my parents because if I were unlovable, then I could do what I wanted and it wouldn’t matter. But as long as I knew I was loved, I wasn’t free to do my own thing. So I needed to destroy their love in order to be free. But they never stopped loving me. Even when I got arrested, and they refused to bail me out of jail, I could see the pain of love in their eyes. Now I realize how much I needed their love, and that it was their love and prayers that kept me alive all those years. What amazes me most of all is that my worst could not destroy their love for me. 

Something as deep and mysterious as the resurrection of Jesus has many levels of meaning. But Matthew wants you to consider this one. It reveals a God whose love for us is like a parent’s love for a prodigal child. Even if we reject God and betray God, God will never, never reject us. And if we do evil things, then God, out of God’s love, will find a way to make something good come out of it. Remember Diane’s phrase? What amazes me most of all is that my worst could not destroy their love for me.As for you, you planned evil against me but God used those same plans for good, and life for many people. Go tell my brothers, [who betrayed me,] that I will meet them in Galilee, [to forgive them and give them new life.]