Sunday, March 27, 2005

'Do Not Be Afraid' - A Sermon for Easter Sunday

Matthew 28:1-10

A letter came across my desk a few weeks ago from the American Red Cross (did you know that March is Red Cross Month?). It’s a form letter, pretty obvious from the first line: ‘Dear Business Leader,

‘The springtime is a busy time for business. Probably furthest from your mind, as you serve your customers, is the possibility of disaster interrupting your ability to operate. But every year businesses are struck by disasters—fires, floods, tornados and other calamities that slow operations to a halt, sometimes for days and weeks, or even months. Half of businesses struck by disaster fail within two years. Do you know what you would do if your business were affected by a disaster?’

We each could provide our own list of disasters we might be thinking about this morning, ranging in scope. Disasters both close by and abroad are presented to us on CNN. Disasters are personal (such as illness) or perhaps more public (a teenager opens fire at a Minnesota school). And they raise questions, doubts, fears: do you know what you would do if you were affected by a disaster?

We have our different coping mechanisms, some healthier than others. Perhaps one has a creative outlet such as music, writing or art. We can escape into the world of Shakespeare or Danielle Steele. We can take solace in our favorite musical playlist. We can get wrapped up in a marathon of movies starring our favorite actors and actresses. Maybe we can bury ourselves under a layer of Ben and Jerry’s, dive to the bottom of a bottle of Jack Daniels and refuse to come up for air. The favored confidence of a friend could lead us through or we could just pull the covers over our heads and unplug the phone. We can preoccupy ourselves with the day’s tasks or allow ourselves to go numb to any and all responsibilities for a time. Disaster affects us in different ways, and we have our own ways to cope.

There’s no account given in Matthew as to how the disciples are coping. The last time we saw them they had fled the mob who had arrested Jesus in Gethsemane. The one little tidbit that Matthew writes is of a few women journeying to Jesus’ tomb. Their current coping mechanism is seeing that the body is cared for, or perhaps just visiting to continue the mourning process. In any event, disaster has struck Jesus’ followers: their leader is gone, trampled under the boot of the Romans. Whatever threat he posed has been snuffed out.

Things turn out a little differently on this particular day. Disaster gives way to a dramatic announcement, complete with a second earthquake, an angel, and even a symbolic ‘defeat’ of the Roman guard who became ‘like dead men.’ The angel announces that Jesus is risen and as they run to tell the others, Jesus himself just sort of pops up out of nowhere: ‘Greetings!’

Matthew describes multiple emotions during this episode: fear and joy. In response to Jesus’ appearance all they can do is fall to the ground and take hold of his feet. What can be said? They’ve gone from disaster to something they can’t even put into words, they DON’T put into words this entire passage. But the exhortation is repeated twice, first by the angel and then by Jesus himself: ‘Do not be afraid.’

After witnessing such a horrendous event only a few days earlier, the words ‘do not be afraid’ are fitting. Now the tomb is empty and Jesus stands before them. It’d be quite a shock to an already weary system. For Matthew’s community, now wrestling with who they are and why they are, the words are fitting as well. Do not be afraid. Remember…Christ is risen.

And now to us to continue on this holiday (and actually every day of the year) as people of faith to proclaim a new beginning, an ongoing presence of Christ in our midst, Matthew says to us, ‘Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid, for so many centuries ago we experienced Christ in our midst after his death. Do not be afraid, because we have known him to continue with us (at the very end of Matthew’s gospel we hear that ‘I am with you always’). Do not be afraid, because we have known the risen Christ. Take comfort that he is with you also.’

Hard to believe sometimes, though, isn’t it? A man who died 2000 years ago raised again by God to guide us through the most difficult of circumstances? Where is that presence when it’s needed most? Where is Jesus popping up and saying, ‘Greetings!’ in our midst? After all, we do not live in a constant state of bliss. The halos around people’s heads in European paintings aren’t quite as noticeable in real life. Where could Jesus be in our disasters? How does our ‘do not be afraid’ appear?

The movie ‘Escape from Sorbibor’ is set in a concentration camp during World War II. One young man has just discovered what the camp is truly for, stumbling upon the gas chambers as they are running. He rushes back to the barracks in which the Jewish workers are imprisoned to find them playing chess and cards, playing music, dancing, laughing. The young man is appalled and offended. ‘Why do you do this if you know what goes on here? How can you sing and laugh? How quickly you have forgotten!’ An older man approaches him and pulls him aside. ‘No, we haven’t forgotten,’ he says. ‘But we do this to remember….to remember that we are human.’

How can we proclaim that Christ is risen, that Christ is present in a disastrous world? Through song, through dance, through sharing at this table, through passing the peace with one another and singing, ‘Alleluia’ and saying ‘Amen’? It is because we remember. We hear Matthew’s reminder, ‘do not be afraid. Christ is risen.’ And this is what we say to one another. We remember the old story of Jesus and God’s love. We remember, re-imagine, relive the surprise, the realization that we are not alone. We are continually surprised, continually realize that Christ is in our midst in unexpected ways. We remember to have hope in disaster and to strengthen our faith in the midst of despair. We remember that we are invited not to cope alone.

So you are invited to sing. Stretch your vocal chords a little more than they’re used to. Rip off a hunk of bread when it comes around. Take two or three. Hug someone you don’t know in the narthex. Say ‘Amen’ when you feel moved and not just when I prompt you. If you’re not allergic, come up here after worship and stick your nose right in one of these Easter lilies and give thanks for the wonderful aroma of life given to this plant.

Remember that Christ is risen. Remember that Christ is present. Remember that you are human and that you are fearfully and wonderfully made. Remember that you are beloved children of God and remind one another of that. Turn to the person on your right and left right now and tell them that: ‘You are a beloved child of God.’

Remember that Christ is with you in disaster. Remember and relive the story of new life.