Each spring, Harvard Divinity School's Office of Ministry Studies organizes the Billings Preaching Prize Competition, an annual preaching competition open to second- and third-year MDiv students. The finalists delivered their sermons at the Wednesday Noon Service on April 11, 2018.
Below are the remarks of finalist Lou Fish-Sadin, MDiv ’18.
A reading from the Gospel of Matthew 27: 62-66
The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, "Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, 'After three days I will rise again.' Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, 'He has been raised from the dead,' and the last deception would be worse than the first." Pilate said to them, "You have 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.
In this passage, traditionally read on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter, we find religious leaders conferring with a Roman Governor just two days after they’ve silenced a religiously and politically subversive voice in their community. The man in question is dead and buried, but before he died he said something they just can’t get out of their heads. They’re not even sure where they heard it, but apparently this guy claimed that after three days had passed, he would rise from the dead.
Jesus’ words have been bothering these leaders; the situation was handled but they’re feeling uncertain, and in talking amongst themselves they’ve come up with a troubling what if. What if his buddies come back and take his body to stage a resurrection, they ask. They’re thinking into the minds of Jesus’ disciples, imagining them to be as calculating as they themselves are, and so they concoct their own plan to block the disciples’ next move.
When the chief priests and Pharisees pitch their plan to the governor, they say of their suspicions that “the last deception would be worse than the first.” In other words, Jesus claiming to be the Son of God was bad enough, but the disciples staging a resurrection? The thought unsettles them, and they respond with decisive action. They see the disciples as a threat to stability and predictability, they don’t like feeling blind to what might happen next, so they take hurried action to try to banish the stress of uncertainty.
Just to be clear, these disciples the religious and political leaders are so worried about are nowhere to be found in this text, and last we saw them in this Gospel, they had fled the scene of Jesus’ arrest, and one of them was busily denying he ever knew the guy. We don’t see them on this Saturday. But the religious and political leaders see the world only through the lens of their own way of thinking, so they apply it to the disciples as well.
They say to Pilate, “his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, 'He has been raised from the dead,' and the last deception would be worse than the first.” The chief priests have spent so long maneuvering and strategizing that they assume that Jesus’ followers would be doing the same; their view of reality confined by their own ideology.
I want to talk for a moment about ideology. Ideologies position an idea or political goal as of ultimate value, instead of pointing ultimately toward God. Another way to name this is idolatry, and it’s easy for me to see political ideology as idolatry when it’s, say, centered around Second Amendment rights or upholding the death penalty. But progressive Christians have our own political agendas that we treat as endpoints, which block our ability to see beyond them to God, and I think for us political activism itself becomes an idol.
The religious and political leaders in Matthew decide that sealing and guarding Jesus’ tomb will protect the boundaries of the ideological status quo: we’re in charge, Jesus was a crazy heretic, and above all people don’t rise from the dead. How desperately do we want our ideology to prevail? Enough that we feel comfortable silencing those who don’t agree with us? Enough that it becomes our ultimate concern? Enough that we start to aim for this world but with more progressive politics rather than another world altogether, sealing our own ideologies in stone to make us feel secure even if it means sealing the kingdom out?
I’ve been in several self-described “progressive” churches lately where from looking at the bulletin or the posters or hearing the announcements, one could well conclude that political activism is the sole point of church. Let me be clear, I think political action is an important way to witness to God’s Kingdom. But in desperate political moments like the ones we seem to find ourselves in weekly these days, it can be easy to get God confused with, say, the Democratic Party. I remember sitting in church the Sunday before the Alabama special senate election in December as a congregant prayed for voter turnout and that Doug Jones would win. And I wanted those things, too, I wanted some sign that we weren’t quite as screwed as it feels like we are, some political victory to make the darkness go away faster. As we responded in unison “Lord, hear our prayer,” I found myself thinking: “well, at least democracy is a better idol than guns.”
But God didn’t tell us not to have idols unless we picked the good ones; as Christians we are called to put our faith in Christ, and nowhere else, especially not in our own ideas. Or as Anne Lamott puts it: “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
Speaking of God, where is she in this story? Behind the sealed stone, the tomb has gone dark. No light seeps in, the soldiers’ shifting feet cannot be heard outside’ all is silent and still. Here in the cool air, lying on the ground wrapped in cloth and spices, God’s bones, waiting. It was the Sabbath day, the day marking God’s rest. The work of resurrection would take place before the stone is unsealed, when it seems the empire has succeeded. Was there any sign in the tomb on that Sabbath day of what was to come?
We cannot see in the dark, and this makes us nervous. It is comforting to think that political activity might ignite a spark of hope so we could avoid having to feel like we are in the dark. We can get desperate to find something to do that will banish the darkness, quick. But the dark tomb is the site of God’s radical activity. If we were not so caught up in the necessity of our vision, we might see through God’s eyes that, as Rebecca Solnit writes, “the future is dark, but with a darkness as much of the womb as of the grave.”
I want to zoom out a bit and show you what comes right before and right after this passage. Hear it again:
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb. The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, "Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, 'After three days I will rise again.' Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, 'He has been raised from the dead,' and the last deception would be worse than the first." Pilate said to them, "You have 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. After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, faithful women on both sides of this story. We don’t see these women doing much other than sitting or standing by the tomb and looking at it. Their response to a dark event is to see the darkness, to return over and over to the site of love. What if, when we went to church, we did what the women do in this story: stood and looked at the tomb. Saw the darkness, the site of God’s radical activity, and kept our sights there, so that when we do act, as we must, it is not in the service of our own vision but of God’s. Amen.