Friday, April 25, 2014

“With Fear and Great Joy” - Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014

Text: Matthew 28:1-10

Today is the day!  It’s Easter Sunday.  Across the world, more people attend worship on this day than any other.  We wear our Easter clothes, we come early for breakfast, and we sing the great Easter hymns.  There is nothing like singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” on Easter morning.  (Unless it is playing Christ the Lord is Risen Today on the saxophone on Easter morning, which I got to do for the very first time today!)

Easter is a time for chicks and bunnies and Easter egg hunts and big dinners and nice Easter buffets.  If you have given something up for Lent as a spiritual discipline, you may be breaking out the chocolate or having a glass of wine.  This is a day of joy and celebration. 

As we read the account of Easter morning in Matthew’s gospel, there is joy.  There is great joy.  But joy is not all we find.

The last week had been a whirlwind.  Jesus had entered Jerusalem to palm branches and shouts of hosanna.  But it wasn’t long before Jesus was throwing the money changers out of the temple, and it was downhill from there.  After they shared the Passover meal, Jesus was arrested.  On Friday, he was crucified.  From great expectations to crucifixion in less than a week.  Think about that.  On Sunday, Jesus is hailed as the great hope of the nation, and by Friday he is dead.  Everything had gone so badly so quickly.  His followers were stunned, just numb with grief.

As Matthew reports it, after the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the tomb.  “The other Mary” is apparently Jesus’ mother, who is mentioned in the previous chapter.  The women don’t have an agenda, they are just going to see the tomb, which makes perfect sense.  We may go to the cemetery a couple of days after the funeral of a loved one.  They went to remember and grieve and to be physically near Jesus, at least near his body.

But they did not find what they expected.  When they arrive at the tomb, there is an earthquake and an angel descends from heaven.  The angel rolls back the stone from the entrance to the tomb and sits on it.  Guards posted at the tomb are terrified; the fear is so great that they pass out.  And the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid.”  That is the first thing the angel says.  “Do not be afraid.”  Now, angels live to make announcements.  That is literally what an angel is: one who makes announcements for God.  Before anything else, the angel announces, “Do not be afraid.” 

This was necessary not only because of the display the women had just seen – an earthquake and an angel descending, the stone rolled away and the guards fainting away, dropping like flies.  That would be scary, but the two Marys were fearful long before this.  They had been absolutely running on fear which had grown through Jesus’ arrest and trial and crucifixion and hardly lessened since his burial.

The first thing the angel said was, “Do not be afraid.”  And then the news: Jesus is not here; he has been raised from the dead.  Stunning, unfathomable news.  Jesus was alive!  And finally the commission: “Go quickly and tell his disciples.”

When you have just been through an earthquake and see an angel descend from heaven, and then watch the angel roll away a great stone sealing a tomb, you do what the angel tells you to do.  Not that they really needed encouragement.  They ran to tell the disciples.

But on their way, suddenly, Jesus is there with them.  I love what he says.  “Greetings.”  He has been dead in the tomb for 3 days.  This is not your typical meeting.  He appears before Mary Magdalene and his mother, and he says, “Greetings.”  “Yo, what’s up?”

I am especially interested in the reaction of the women to the news that Jesus was alive: fear and joy.

Fear and joy, joy and fear.  They are an unlikely pair.  Cardinal and gold – they go together.  Winter and potholes.  Spring and daffodils.  Corned beef and cabbage.  College and ramen noodles.  But fear and joy?  This sounds very strange.  And yet, we all have had the experience of simultaneously feeling joy and fear, in both large ways and small ways.

You’ve saved and scrimped and looked forward to the day when you could buy your own home, and now the day has come.  You make an offer, and it is accepted.  And then it hits you that you have committed to paying an incredible sum of money over the next three decades, and so you feel both excitement and joy at owning this home as well as a certain amount of fear and the feeling of “what have we done?”

You have looked forward so much to the birth of a child.  And seeing this tiny baby, you feel such incredible love and joy and thankfulness.  But at the same time, as you think of the challenges of parenthood, there is a fear mixed in - a sense of the awesome responsibility you now have.

You are off to college for the first time.  It is exciting.  It feels like freedom.  It’s a new chapter in your life.  But it is also scary.  You are not sure what to expect and your roommate is a bit – well, questionable.  There is both joy and fear.

In various ways, we have experienced something of the feeling of joy and fear mixed together.  It’s really fairly common.  But what the two Marys experienced went beyond this kind of joy/fear mix.

An earthquake and an angel will elicit fear every time.  But what is really frightening is to have your understanding of reality challenged, and that is exactly what happened on Easter morning.  What really provokes fear is a sense that things are out of control and that the world is not the way we had thought it was.

The resurrection challenges us with the notion that there is something going on in this world, that God is at work in ways that we cannot see or even imagine.  There is a reality beyond the logic and analysis of our minds, and God is not limited by our understanding or experience.

The resurrection is the heart of the Christian gospel.  It is reason for great, soaring joy.  And it can scare the living daylights out of us, because it means that we thought we had the world all figured out, and maybe we don’t. 

The resurrection inspires both joy and fear, but we have had mixed feelings about Jesus all along, if we are honest.

We really like a Jesus who taught about love, but not so much a Lord who commands us to love our enemies.

We really like a Jesus who helped the unfortunate, but not so much a Lord who challenges us to sell what we own and give the money to the poor.

We really like a Jesus who threw the moneychangers out of the temple, but not so much a Lord who calls us to reform our practices of worship.
We really like a Jesus who includes everybody, who was a friend of tax collectors and sinners, but not so much a Lord who encourages us to embrace people we feel are beneath us.

We really like a Jesus who accepted people as his disciples, but not so much a Lord who challenges us to take up our cross, to lose our lives for his sake, and to find new life through sacrifice.

News of resurrection brought about mixed feelings for the women at the tomb – both joy and fear – but if we are honest, we have to admit that we have really had mixed feelings about Jesus all along.

Resurrection can be threatening.  New life can be a bit scary, because we prefer the certainty of the way things are, even if the way things are isn’t all that great.

There is a story of a man brought up for execution.  He is told that he has two choices.  He may choose the firing squad, or the big black door.

He chooses the firing squad.  Later the executioner commented, “Everyone chooses the firing squad.  I have never yet had a person choose the big black door.”

Someone asked, “What’s behind the big black door?”  “Behind the big black door is freedom,” said the executioner.  “But given a choice between the evil they know and the unknown, people will always choose what they know.”

It is hard to live by faith when what most of us know, what most of us are taught in so many ways, what most of us are programmed for, is to live otherwise. 

Marianne Williamson wrote about our fear of new life:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful.  It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.  We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be?  You are a child of God… We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. 

The possibility of new life can actually be scary.

The resurrection calls into question what we believe to be possible.  It tells us that the world and our place in it is a whole lot bigger than we had thought.  It tells us that the barriers we had thought were there, that we had maybe even grown comfortable with, are not nearly as daunting and immovable as we had believed.  Resurrection means new life, wild, unpredictable, uncontrollable new life, is possible – and that can scare us.

The poet Mary Oliver wrote, “Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.”  I love that.  And that is the heart of the message of Easter: “keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.”

Kim Fabricius, an Australian theologian, told about going to a meeting at a university where someone spoke on “The Resurrection of Jesus.”  The talk was brilliant. All of the arguments against the resurrection – that Jesus hadn’t really died, that the disciples stole the body, that it was all either a hoax or a hallucination – all of these the speaker roundly refuted.  And then he presented evidence in favor of the resurrection.  The witness of the disciples and especially the women (nobody would invent the testimony of women in first-century Israel); the conversion of the persecutor Saul into the apostle Paul; the birth of the church, believers willing to die for their faith – marshalling all this evidence, the speaker claimed to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that Jesus rose from the dead.

The audience was very impressed, but somehow this all left Fabricius kind of cold.  There were sveral reasons for this, but the main reason the talk fell flat for him was that it was as if the speaker had it all sorted out.  He had all the answers to what came across as a kind of algebra problem, an academic game and it made it sound as though the resurrection of Jesus were easy.

Fear and joy.  While the speaker was short on joy, he had completely left out the fear.  There was no sense of mystery about it, which to this man who attended the talk made it feel like there was no sense of God in it.

The fact is, resurrection is not easy at all.  It’s existentially disturbing.  It’s threatening.  It’s explosive.

Of course, this speaker did what we are all tempted to do – to make God manageable, to have it all explained and figured out.  And we need to investigate the claims of faith; our faith is worth examining in a rigorous way.  But the way the gospels present the resurrection, each a bit differently, leaves things kind of messy.  And it is interesting that none of the gospels are trying to prove the resurrection; they are simply reporting, and inviting us to experience the mystery of God and the joy of new life as well as the fear and messiness of following Jesus for ourselves.

New life is unpredictable.  It can mess up our reality.  That can be scary, but at the same time this is good news, because there is a lot of reality that needs to be messed with.  There is a lot in this world that needs some shaking up.

Easter gives us hope beyond death, hope beyond this world.  But not only that, it gives us hope in the here and now, because we go through all kinds of deaths in this life.

If there is anything we share in common, it is loss.  We all suffer loss - the loss of our youth, the loss of our innocence, maybe the loss of our hair.  There are broken relationships.  There are dashed hopes and broken dreams and various disappointments.  We lose those whom we love; for some here this morning the grief is fresh and raw.  In one way or another, we all have to face loss, and if we are not careful, death can have a grip on us long before our bodies die.

But Easter tells us that there is resurrection.  There is new life, not just awaiting us in the future, but here and now.  Easter tells us that the power of God is greater than the power of death, greater than all the losses we suffer in this life.  And while Easter elicits both fear and great joy, in the end the power and grace and love of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, is greater than all our fears.

And so, this morning, the announcement comes not just to the women at the tomb, it comes to us.  Fear not.  Do not be afraid.  Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead.  The power of God is greater any of the losses we suffer, greater even than death. 

And make sure to “keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.”  Amen.