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Easter Courage

EASTER COURAGE

Matthew 28:1-10
A Sermon by Robert E. Dunham
University Presbyterian Church
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Third Sunday of Easter April 30, 2017

            I know Easter Sunday was two weeks ago, but Elizabeth’s reflections last Sunday on the disciples cowering behind locked doors had me thinking this week about what difference Easter makes. So, I’ve come back to the Easter story for a reason. I’ve been thinking about what Matthew says about the women that first Easter, when Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were making their solemn daybreak journey to see the tomb and to gaze upon the sad conclusion of their dreams. One biblical scholar describes that somber sojourn this way:

What they expected to see, of course, was Jesus’ grave, a monument to the sadness they felt in the soul, a confirmation of the cruel truth that the world finally beats mercy and righteousness to death. Somewhere along the path to the cemetery, however, they left one world and entered another. Without even knowing that they had crossed the border, they left the old world, where hope is in constant danger, and might makes right, and peace has little chance, and … the weak all eventually suffer under some Pontius Pilate or another… and dead people stay dead . . . and they enter the startling and breathtaking world of resurrection and life.  Jesus of Nazareth, who had been as dead as a doornail on Friday afternoon, was not in his tomb that morning, and the world – theirs and ours – has been turned upside down ever since.[1]

Expecting nothing but death and decay, they were greeted first by an earthquake, and then by an angel. As they moved closer and peered into the tomb, the angel spoke, and his message was as startling as the earthquake itself:

I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he* lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead,* and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.”

Earthquake.  Angel. Such startling and unexpected news! Matthew says that it was almost too much for the women that morning. The angel told them not to be afraid. But of course they were afraid! Matthew says, “they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and ran to tell his disciples” of their overwhelming news.

The “great joy” we understand. I suspect we understand the fear as well, for lots of reasons.  There was the earthquake; and we know enough about earthquakes to know how menacing they can be.  And there was the angel, appearing out of nowhere on top of the gravestone. And, as Scott Black Johnston notes, there was something else, too. Perhaps they were fearful that the angel’s news was true. We’d understand that fear, no? Scott asks if we might be afraid “of the possibility, however slim we consider it to be, that God is out there and will meet us this day? He said,.

After all, if Jesus is waiting on-down-the-road in Galilee, you can bet that he has plans for us.  No doubt he will ask things of us, the same way he challenged the disciples…. Perhaps this is the [day] the living God will grab us by the scruff of our souls to propel us into some wild scheme. Maybe this Jesus is like those people you encounter on sidewalks with clipboards and petitions to sign.  You there, yes you, I’ve got your name on my list, now march out into the world and make some kind of holy difference.  Maybe that’s what scares us.  [W]e love Jesus; we go to church, at least [some Sundays]. Yet we really do not want God to mess with us, to make demands on us, to cost us anything.  Leave us politely alone – hands off our [portfolios] and our politics – oh, and keep your nose out of our … business [dealings] and our … relationships.  We want Jesus to stay where he belongs (a kindly figure who presides over the sweet dreams of children); we don’t want him wandering around the countryside, tapping his foot – impatiently waiting for us to show up.  That sort of Jesus is more than enough to make a person afraid.  If he is not [dead], if he is raised, well, then, to quote Flannery O’Connor, “He’s thrown everything off balance!”[2]

Will Willimon once asked: “Isn’t it interesting that the predominant emotion on that first Easter was not joy? It was fear. Earlier they had said, “He’s dead. Now what’s to become of us?” After Easter, it was “He’s back! Now what’s to become of us?”[3]

“So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy,” says Matthew, “and ran to tell his disciples.” There’s yet another corner to their fear, I think. Tom Long says that in their admixture of fear and joy Mary Magdalene and the other Mary are “the church in miniature” –

overcome with joy over the good news they have heard but also apprehensive as they move with this news toward a skeptical and dangerous world. The wonderful news of Easter is that Jesus is alive, and the [terrifying] news of Easter is also that Jesus is alive, because nothing is nailed down anymore. The old joke about nothing being sure but death and taxes was at least half right; you could at least count on death.  The way the world used to be, if something troubling got in the way, like a [person calling] for racial justice or a worker for peace or an advocate for mercy, the world could just kill it and it would be done with. But Jesus is alive, and righteousness, mercy, and peace cannot be dismissed with a cross or a sword. We have to decide where we stand and what we will do in this new and frightening resurrection world.[4]

The message of Easter is meant to instill courage, not fear.  Yet the fears persist. A couple of years ago, the novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson wrote a compelling essay in the New York Review of Books that put frame and substance to some of the fears we harbor.  I shared a portion of her essay that Christmas Eve. She began with the provocative thesis that America was a Christian nation, without disparaging changing demographics, arguing that her thesis is true in several senses.

Most people, if asked, will identify themselves as Christian, which may mean only that they aren’t something else. Non-Christians will say America is Christian, meaning that they feel somewhat apart from the majority culture. There are a large number of demographic Christians in North America because of our history of immigration from countries that are or were also Christian. We are identified in the world at large with this religion because some of us espouse it not only publicly but also vociferously. As a consequence, we carry a considerable responsibility for its good name in the world, though we seem not much inclined to consider the implications of this fact….

[With that working assumption, she then said,] There is something I have felt the need to say…. My thesis is … very simply stated, [in two] parts: first, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind. As children we learn to say, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.” We learn that … Jesus told his disciples, “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” Christ is a gracious, abiding presence… and in him [we Christians believe] history will finally be resolved.

[But those] who forget God…  can be recognized in the fact that they make irrational responses to irrational fears… There are always real dangers in the world, sufficient to their day [she wrote]. Fearfulness obscures the distinction between real threat on one hand and on the other the terrors that beset those who see threat everywhere. It is clear enough, to an objective viewer at least, with whom one would choose to share a crisis, whose judgment should be trusted when sound judgment is most needed.

Granting the perils of the world, it is potentially a very costly indulgence to fear indiscriminately, and to try to stimulate fear in others, just for the excitement of it, or because to do so channels anxiety or loneliness or prejudice or resentment into an emotion that can seem to those who indulge it like shrewdness or courage or patriotism. But no one seems to have an unkind word to say about fear these days, un-Christian as it surely is.[5]

What was it the angel said to the women at the empty tomb all those years ago? “Do not be afraid.” It is the most often-repeated command in the New Testament, and a gracious word to hear in any moment of darkness and dread: “Do not be afraid.”  A friend says that it is perhaps the most astonishing news of our faith that the same God who made the heavens and the earth, this God whose greatness is so vast that even the heavens cannot contain it, this same God was yet willing to come among us in order to touch us with gentleness and grace and allay our fears.  The measureless power that made the heavens and the earth is concentrated in a hand reaching out to touch and save us, as if to say, do not be afraid![6] Tom Are says:

The reason the angels always say, “do not be afraid,” is not because angels are so scary; it’s because we are already afraid…. We live in a post-9/11, post-Wall Street collapse, nuclear threatened, climate changing, cancer battled, poverty crushed, dementia stalking… world.  We are a people who walk in darkness and live in a land of deep darkness. Who wouldn’t be afraid?

[But here’s the thing:] When we are afraid, we are not our best selves.  When we are afraid, our neighbor [may look like] the enemy. When we are afraid, no one can be trusted. When we are afraid, we are consumed by what we might lose, and things like joy and forgiveness seem like fantasy.  When we are afraid, anyone who is different [seems] deficient. But the [angel knows] something we don’t know. [He brings] us a word from another [realm,] from [the throne of] God.  And that word is that love [can disable] our fear.[7]

Most of the time, we can’t acknowledge the fear, because it seems ridiculous to be fearful so soon after the celebration of Easter. But if we are, we are not alone. Elizabeth reminded us last Sunday that on the very first Easter evening, the disciples gathered behind locked doors (“click”) out of fear. Other Gospel writers describe the confusion, the uncertainty, and the fear as the community of disciples tried to understand what had happened. Yet, at every turn there was a Jesus saying, “Peace be with you.”  Do not be afraid.  For Jesus had already experienced the worst that anyone could experience and had vanquished the powers of death.  With his resurrection, Jesus had accomplished the death of fear.

“Do not be afraid.” That’s what the angel said. If we take such a word to heart and live into the power of the Easter good news, we may begin to replace the fear we feel with something else, something more helpful and hopeful, something more fitting and more becoming for Christian people – something akin to courage. At the end of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, its pastor-narrator John Ames concludes his long letter to his young son with these words:

Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave – that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm. And therefore, this courage allows us, as the old men said, to make ourselves useful. It allows us to be generous, which is another way of saying exactly the same thing…. I’ll pray that you grow up to be a brave man in a brave country. I will pray you find a way to be useful.[8]

Goodness knows, friends, it is so easy to be cynical and fearful in our time. Our culture is infected with darkness, with gloomy, fearful, and angry rhetoric, and with leaders who sow fear to their own advantage.  But such rhetoric is so unbecoming for Christians. There may be much to fear, but as for me, I will not give in to such fear, or those who monger it. I will do my best to remember that “precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm.” I will not let fear keep me from welcoming the stranger, or living with kindness and openness, or embracing those who are different. Indeed, I have found myself convicted in recent days by an old proposal I’ve shared here before, offered by the novelist Alice Walker. She said, “If we live in a world in which it is fashionable to be [fearful and] unloving, then let us strive to live unfashionably.”[9]  In the spirit of Easter, I say amen to that sentiment!

“Do not be afraid,” the angel said. So, courage, friends!  Courage.

 

[1] Thomas G. Long, Matthew: Westminster Bible Companion, Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1997, 322.

[2] Scott Black Johnston, “Deadly Things,” Easter 2009 (April 12, 2009) on the Day 1 radio broadcast.

[3]William H. Willimon, “He’s Back,” in James W. Cox, Ed., Best Sermons 4, Harper San Francisco, 1991, 65-66.

[4] Long, 323.

[5] Marilynne Robinson, “Fear,” New York Review of Books, September 24, 2015, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2015/09/24/marilynne-robinson-fear/, accessed September 27, 2015.

[6] Willson, op. cit.

[7] Thomas L. Are, Jr., in a paper shared with the Moveable Feast. I have lost the specific reference.

[8] Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004, 246, 247.

[9] As cited by Ted Wardlaw, in a sermon preached February 11, 2001 at the Central Presbyterian Church of Atlanta.

Bob Dunham , Pastor

Email: dunham@upcch.org

Phone: (919) 929.2102 ext. 111

Bio:

Bob is grateful for the privilege of serving as pastor and head of staff of University Church since 1991. He is particularly thankful for the colleagues, officers and members who have served the church with great love and care during the last quarter century. Bob is a Florida native and a graduate of Davidson College, Union Theological Seminary in Virginia and Yale University Divinity School. He began his ministry as associate pastor and campus minister at the First Presbyterian Church of Auburn, Alabama; he also served as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Covington, Georgia, and the Westminster Presbyterian Church of Charleston, South Carolina, before coming to Chapel Hill. His wife, Marla, is a retired English professor, and they have two grown children and a wonderful granddaughter: son Aaron, his wife Natalie, and their daughter Catherine live in Greenville, SC, and daughter Leah and her husband Prentice live in the Asheville area. Bob is the author of Expecting God’s Surprises: Devotions for the Advent Journey, published in 2001 by Geneva Press. His sermons have also been featured on the Day 1 national radio broadcast. Bob enjoys reading and music of all kinds, and he finds relaxation on long walks in the woods (whether on hiking trails or near fairways, while chasing golf balls).