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Easter Sermon: In Between Fear and Joy

For those who wanted to read my Easter sermon. Enjoy!

Text: Matthew 28:1-10

For people who have lived through wars or immense natural disasters or extreme poverty, fear is much different from what I’ve ever experienced. Having grown up in a quiet neighborhood in Omaha, about the only fear I knew was of getting in trouble for staying out past dark.

I suppose that’s why one of the first times I experienced real paralyzing fear as an adult was so memorable. It happened during an on-call shift in my Clinical Pastoral Education, at which I served as a chaplain intern at a very busy hospital in Chicago. That afternoon, a man in his 50s was brought in by his cousin. The cousin had found him unresponsive in his home. Attempts to revive him were futile. He had died of a sudden heart attack.

The cousin began to tell the man’s story, as grieving people always do. He told me in his shock and disbelief that the deceased man had actually lost his mother just a few weeks earlier. The man, who suffered from diabetes, had gone on a drinking binge. This cousin had tried to help keep him as safe as possible. He couldn’t do anything to prevent his tragedy. The cousin was sick with sadness and unmerited guilt. Pieces of this story continued to fall into place while we attempted to contact the man’s brother, who would have to sign the paperwork related to his death.

It took several hours for us to reach the man’s brother. By then, several friends and relatives had come to view the man’s body, walking through the first stages of shock and grief. The man’s brother finally arrived at the hospital emergency room and was given the news. He was a towering man who stood at least 10 inches taller than me and was wearing a Harley Davidson T-shirt and a leather vest. I was intimidated. So, when the man became slightly agitated and demanded to see his brother’s body, I acquiesced rather than do what I was trained to do – find a reason to make him wait and calm down before letting him in the viewing room. I unlocked the door, thinking very briefly that I should have taken the emergency call button.

I accompanied the brother and the family friend into the tiny, cinder-block walled viewing room. The hulking man looked upon his brother’s dead body on the gurney, leaned over it, his broad shoulders reaching over to the wall behind the gurney. He began pounding his fists on the cold cement wall shouting, “No! No!”

The man’s enormous body seemed to take over the small space. I’m sure I looked like a clichéd ‘deer in headlights.’ I had absolutely no idea what to do if this man began to turn his fists on something besides the concrete wall. The cousin looked back at me, half apologetic, half terrified, reached his hand out to me and said, “Let’s say a Hail Mary.” More grateful than I ever had been in my life for my Catholic upbringing, I took the men’s hands and said a Hail Mary. The brother, still distraught, calmed down with the prayer and eventually left the viewing room and went back into the family waiting area.

Soon after, the brother’s wife arrived and he became a model of polite and calm. We introduced ourselves formally and he spoke to me by name while we finished up paperwork. Then he left the hospital.

I’m sure we can all remember moments when we’ve felt debilitated by fear. We’re faced with an extreme situation and instead of diving in face first, we cower in a corner, having no idea how to react.

I bet our stories don’t even come close to what was going on that first Easter morning. Most of us have heard this story so many times that it doesn’t even seem remarkable any more. Earthquake? A stone rolling back? An angel white like lightening? Whatever?!?

If we move a little more deliberately through the story, however, we can picture, moment by moment, how incredible, almost unbelievable, this situation really is. The two Marys wake up early after the Sabbath and walk to the tomb to tend to Jesus’ body. The author of Matthew doesn’t reveal the womens’ motivations, but we can guess. On one level, they were just doing what women did – care for buried bodies. I think, however, that they were motivated by more than just obligation. Love for their friend and teacher was probably a factor in their early morning visit to the tomb. But, perhaps (and they probably didn’t admit it even to themselves) but they were hopeful – hopeful that just maybe the things Jesus said about rising on the third day might be true.

Whatever their motivations and feelings that morning, they undoubtedly got more than they ever imagined. A great earthquake shakes the ground, followed by the rolling back of the large, heavy stone that covered the entrance of the tomb. We don’t have to plum the depth of our memory very far to recall the horrific images of the recent Japanese earthquake to know how devastating and terrifying this part of the story alone is. The rumbling ground and moving stone undoubtedly throws everyone to their knees, their world literally turning upside down. The heavy stone, once covering the entrance of the tomb, rolls easily away; perhaps toward the guards or the women who were just arriving at the tomb.

The earthquake should have been enough. Another greeting comes from a lightning strike and an angel sitting on top of the stone that just covered the tomb, clothed in brilliant white robes. The guards probably thought their job was an easy one. How hard is it to guard a dead body? Now, they have definitely gotten more than they bargained for. They are so overwhelmed by fear of the angel that they shook and ‘became like dead men.’

“DO NOT BE AFRAID!” is the angels’ opening line. It’s like the angel is injecting a little comedy into this disaster movie. DO NOT BE AFRAID???? Really? What shouldn’t we be afraid of? The earthquake, the rolling stone or the lightning?

I imagine that the Mary’s eyes were ten times as large as normal. They should have been paralyzed by fear, unable to even understand what was unfolding before them. But they stop and they listen.

“I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified,” The angel says. “He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.” (Matthew 28: 6, NRSV)

They see the empty tomb, which they know had lain undisturbed before the earthquake and appearance of the angel. The angel then tells the women to go and tell the other disciples that Jesus has risen and that he will meet them in Galilee. Unlike the guards who are still lying on the ground as if dead, the women jump into action.

“So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.” (Matthew 28: 8, NRSV)

The women’s reaction is absolutely remarkable when you give it a little thought. Not only did they just witness things that should paralyze them with fear; they are women, barred from giving any kind of public testimony. And, now, the angel has entrusted them with witnessing the greatest news they could possibly share. They don’t hesitate or wait. They run down the path ‘with great joy’ to tell the other disciples what they have heard.

What prompts them to move through their fear toward joy?

When I was writing this sermon, I began contemplating what prompts this movement from fear to joy and did a very modern thing and asked my Facebook friends what they thought. Responses were varied … and profound. What I distilled from their responses was that in the paralyzing grip of fear, we most urgently needed both God and each other. We rely most heavily on God’s unfailing love and find in ourselves the ability to see how grace, hope and faith burst forth from that. In those moments, we also need each other as living reminders. Just as I needed that grieving man’s cousin to show that the way to handle that terrifying situation in the hospital viewing room was with prayer and grace.

Perhaps this is why both of the Marys came to the tomb that morning. They may have needed each other to face the despair of the grave, the fear of the earthquake and the joyous revelation that Jesus had indeed returned. Without each other, they may not have been able to run down the path and then encounter the risen Christ himself, who once again reminds them not to be afraid.

Now, I’ve been practicing yoga for years and still fear will get the best of me. Just ask me to try a handstand or some other wild inversion and ripples of fear will go through my body. My mind will then defeat me before I’ve even begun. “I can’t do THAT,” I’ll think.

Sometimes, however, I get the best of fear. What I do is take a deep breath and align my body in the way I’m being instructed. I gather energy from the earth below, ground my legs breathe deeply and think at one time of growing toward the earth and extending toward the sky. I breathe again, lift my arms, tilt back my shoulders bend back and look up, up, up.

To me THIS is joy — or at least a representation of it. Freedom can be found through grounding in the power of the earth, lifting up with the breath of God and extending. This movement, rooted in the divine, is not fleeting or transient. It is always present, always available, always there. In it we become our greatest selves, the resurrection people God intends us to be.

Fear does not have to be the winner, as the Marys show us in our scripture. Resurrection people do not cower in fear or just do enough to survive. Resurrection people live in the glow of the living God, rooted in the knowledge that Jesus HAS indeed risen again.

We look at the stories of things happening in our world and see them differently. We do not simply look at the despair and sadness and immensity of events like the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Japan. We see an opportunity to witness to the risen Christ by offering our assistance, even from a half a world away.

We look around our communities and see who are most neglected and we find a way to welcome those strangers into our midst, whether that is by offering them food or a kind word spoken in a language that is different from our own.

We extend our hand to our enemies, whether they are in our workplace, our homes or our schools, remembering that Christ risen lives in each of their hearts and souls.

We regularly and sincerely ask God for guidance about what our faith communities could be doing to serve God and God’s people. And, if God calls us to do something big or crazy, maybe like starting a day care in our church, we move forward even if the resources don’t seem to be right there. We know that somehow God will provide that ministry with what it needs.

Resurrection people live lives of disciplined hope. The discipline is necessary because we know that we won’t feel hopeful every single day in the face of such overwhelming problems. A discipline of hope helps us live into the resurrection.

We live a disciplined life that does not give into scarcity thinking or cynicism or anger or inertia. We look at even the bleakest situation knowing that God’s love and grace will emerge. Resurrection people know that life always triumphs over death – we live our lives as if every day is our last, because we KNOW the joy and freedom of the resurrection is always coming. Amen. Alleluia!

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