Joy and Fear: Matthew 28.1–10

2019.4.21 joyDelivered at Ames UCC
on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

All I want you to feel today is joy.

Joy at the children, joy at the flowers, joy at the traditions. Joy from being with family, joy from being with friends who have become family. Joy at the gorgeous weather and the promise that snow is now a ways off. Joy from our tale of resilient life.

But our scripture is fighting me. Our scripture is wagging its finger at my preference, reminding me that though we may want joy and though we may feel joy, other sensations may insist on being present too.

For the Marys did not experience only great joy, they left the tomb with fear, as well.

That fear makes sense.

At least three Marys were present for the gruesome work of the days before: Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James and John, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph. By the morning we mark today, we are down to Mary the Magdelene and “the other Mary,” so one of those two moms.

These are traumatized women.

The Magdalene and the other Mary had given up their regular lives to put their physical, financial, and spiritual resources behind Jesus. Such sacrifice was worthwhile because of the thrill of watching untold others experience the same learning, and feasting, and salvation as in a healing salve, that had originally drawn them to Jesus.

As I said at our Good Friday service, consider how moved we are by Jesus’s portrait of God’s kin-dom even from this great a distance. What must it have been like at a distance of just the length of an arm, or less?

And then the Marys and the rest of the disciples saw firsthand, at the length of an arm or less, the movement tear itself apart: Judas’s betrayal, Peter’s denial, the male disciples’ abandonment. The Marys and the other women were left alone at the foot of a device of torture where the one on whom they had staked their lives was himself staked and torn apart.

Fear must have gripped the Magdalene and the other Mary for hours before the one we occupy now.

Maybe it had gripped them long enough that they were almost inured to it, because even though they experience an earthquake and the appearance of a messenger of God, it is the tomb guards who became so frightened that they are “like dead men,” not the Marys.

Fully present in the midst of divine manifestation the Magdalene and the other Mary are the first to receive what we call the good news: The cross could not kill; the tomb could not hold the holiness that made Jesus possible—and the Christ is present still.

Now that is good news of great joy, that is joy made complete. All that they had given is redeemed, all that they lived for yet lives on. Joy!

But the story says they left with great joy and fear. The earthquake and the messenger did not scare them off. So what could have set them scared again?

Knowing what they would encounter when they left.

The messenger instructs Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to return to their community with the good news. They have the honor of being the apostles to the other apostles.

But surely they know what their reception will be like: Crazy women. These must be crazy women. This story is just the the overemotional delusions of mere women. You know how women are, the male disciples will say. Besides, why would mere women be the recipients of a revelation? In the Gospel of Mary Magdalene Peter says, “Did Jesus really speak privately with a woman and not openly to us? Are we to turn about and all listen to her?”

Schooled all their lives in patriarchy, our Marys knew they would be doubted, berated, possibly even threatened. Not only would the government that killed Jesus seek to kill the remnants of his movement, but those in the movement might also want to kill what threatened their control of the message, their nascent orthodoxy.

So, yes. As they ran from the empty tomb, the Marys knew transcendent joy and concrete fear, too.

We can relate. We know fear based on irrefutable realities.

Having entered the Anthropocene era of our planet, human beings, in terms of mass, 2019.4.21 uccweigh eight times that of all wild mammals.1 Our rage, hatred, and estrangement from each other feels weightier still. To have faith in the Easter claim of love undying and life renewing, let alone to run from here to proclaim it, feels preposterous, maybe even pointless. How will either right the balance of this planet?

I know that as a Christian priest I am supposed to tell you that Jesus rose bodily from the grave and will return bodily again, and because you are here, it will all work out.

If you have been here any length of time, though, you know I interpret the rising Christ as metaphorical, as well as perpetual. For me, there is no second coming but ongoing ascent.

I know that isn’t true for all of you here. One of the gifts of the United Church of Christ is our practice of holding together what does not agree so that none of us risk self-righteousness and all of us may learn.

But despite my heterodoxy I do truly love this story, enough to devote my life to it.

Though it does not give me confidence that everything will work out, it does give me a joy in spite of my fears. It gives me joy along with my fears not through a reversal of the natural order but through the resiliency, the bravery, the relationship of the Marys that allowed them to resist a more predictable order.

These women had no good reason to follow Jesus before his arrest and every reason to flee from him and his followers after his death. We can relate to this, too.

In 2019 we have no rational reason to follow Jesus and plenty of good reasons to flee from Jesus’s followers and their practices of death.

Yet something happened to the Magdalene and the other, something in their walk with Jesus had changed them such that nothing could stop their walk toward what is holy and what is good, though they were immersed in what was banal and what was wrong.

And because of that, they received God renewed, a counterpart, a covenant partner to their fear.

So here are the glad tidings, hear the good news of Easter morn: When we likewise walk, when we likewise let these old stories and our companionship guide our search for a better way through a worsening world, we, too, encounter God’s joy unbound.

It may not offer solutions, but it will rebuke the paralysis of fear.

So this morning let Easter’s joy from the kids and the music and the sun and the tale pierce our present fears, let it settle our restless hearts, let it redeem our sacred souls.

And together let us run from this place, not worried about being called a bunch of emotional women, for Jesus will meet us along the way. And together we will proclaim Christ is risen! Christ is rising yet again! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

1Kolbert, Elizabeth. “Louisiana’s Disappearing Coast,” The New Yorker Magazine. March 25, 2019.

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