Join us as we celebrate Easter.
Matthew 28: 1-10
After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then 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.” This is my message for you.’ So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
“John! John! Are you ok?”
As I came to, I wasn’t sure if I was in a strange dream or had been abducted by aliens.
I was lying on my back with my feet in the stirrups of an OB/Gyn examination table with several concerned people looking down at me. Chief among them was Colleen, my wife of four years at that point. Moments earlier we had been sitting in a very warm examination room and received some news from the doctor: “Congratulations, you’re having a baby!”
I had fainted. I still say that the room was warm and I was wearing a heavy coat, but Colleen assures me that I did pass out. The staff immediately made a note in her file: “Husband is a fainter.”
Though we had decided that we were open to the idea of having a child, I apparently responded to the reality like a fainting goat. This very happy news raised existential questions:
“Am I capable of raising a child when I frequently act like one?
Would I finish paying my graduate school loans before this child goes to college?
Do I have to buy a minivan?”
Colleen, the one who was actually carrying the baby and would have to give birth, was cool, calm and collected. She was filled with joy, but in a peaceful way.
Have you ever received news that was inherently good, but found yourself overwhelmed and unable to feel reassurance that everything will work out?
On Easter, we come here to receive the Good News that death does not win and that Jesus offers grace to all.
Why then, do we continue to feel overwhelmed?
I trust that we all have more than a few reasons.
Whether you read, watch, listen to or actively avoid the news, most here have higher cortisol stress hormones flowing through us than any time in recent memory.
Let’s explore the story of the first Easter together, and consider what we can learn from some of the first witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus.
Today’s story from the Gospel of Matthew is a tale of two reactions—those who were charged with guarding the tomb, and two women named Mary who had faithfully come to see it firsthand.
Early that Sabbath day before Easter was called Easter, there they were. The guards were ensuring that no one would disturb the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the Mother of James making their way.
Suddenly the earth shook. An angel with an appearance like lightning rolls back the stone and sits on it. How do you think you would react to this angel?
(You can guess what I would do)
The guards “shook and became like dead men?”
With the guards frozen, the angel speaks to Mary and Mary, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised.” The angel then showed them the very spot where the crucified Jesus had been placed, but had been raised.”
Stanley P. Saunders of Columbia Theological Seminary writes that they exhibited “primal human responses,” as “The guards’ fear induces a deathlike state and eventual denial, whereas the women’s fear and awe mingle with and give way to joy and worship.” Saunders says that “The way of courage and faith leads to worship, which has no real grounding apart from the recognition of God’s power in the cross and resurrection. The other leads to deceit upon deceit.”
“Do not be afraid,” said the angel, commanding Mary and Mary to go and tell their disciples. On their way to do just that, they hear the words again: “Do not be afraid.” This time, the words are coming from Jesus himself.
Will we choose the way of courage and faith, or the way of deceit that tells us that God doesn’t care?
There is a person I know very well who is one of my role models of how to follow Christ’s way of courage and faith. His name is Fred and his story is true. Fred grew up in San Francisco. His father left the family when Fred was four. Fred reminded his mother and grandmother of his father, so he was an outcast in his home. He had to eat dinner on the back porch away from his sisters. His grandmother beat him with a bamboo cane. They eventually kicked him out of the home with only a coat.
At age 9, Fred ended up in the foster care system. He lived with one family that didn’t work out, so he moved on to live with Mrs. Sands. She left Fred and his foster brother severely malnourished, feeding a little stale bread and bacon fat. She would make the boys work and she kept the money. Mrs. Sands maintained order physically. She beat Fred with a shoe that left a cat paw impression he vividly remembers. Fred resolved not to cry, no matter how much she beat him.
“Not gonna cry, not gonna cry,” he decided.
Fred moved through more foster homes until he was 13. He had no sense of security, but finally ended up in what he hoped was a loving home in Palo Alto. Fred clearly remembers being 13 on Thanksgiving with this new loving family. He went and locked himself in the pickup truck outside.
He started to weep.
Everyone wondered what was wrong. He didn’t know it at the time, but he now says that all those years of beatings and being determined not to cry came gushing out in one huge wave of emotion. The pain of what life had dealt him and the hope that he now had in a loving home became real. Given the realities that foster kids like Fred deal with, it isn’t surprising a very high percentage end up struggling through life and sometimes resort to crime. Fred says he will not take credit for this, but his character and guidance in his new home led him on a promising path. He joined the navy during the Korean War. Fred once got in a fight because someone looked at a fellow sailor who was black and said, “I don’t want any n-words on my boat.” Fred did not tolerate this kind of treatment.
After the Navy, he went to college. Fred married a beautiful and sweet woman named Mary Jo, then went to work for Aerojet. Finally, Fred went to work for the State of California in Community Care licensing, investigating child abuse for innocent kids in the same situation he knew all too well.
Perhaps the most significant reason why Fred and I crossed paths was that he became a Christian. He first heard about Jesus from the Salvation Army when he was a self-described street urchin in San Francisco. A chaplain in the Navy baptized Fred. He and Mary Jo raised their son and daughter in the faith and made Christ the center of their lives. That daughter ended up going to school and meeting a boy who didn’t follow Jesus or go to church very often.
Fred’s daughter is Colleen and that boy is me. Without Colleen’s dad who I also call dad, I have no idea where I would be . . . but I am reasonably certain it wouldn’t be serving in a church. It takes a special person to put up with being married to a pastor. Fred’s harsh start to life is not what any child should have to deal with. But his response to it changed my life.
I have seen him look into the tomb time and time again, including October 4th of last year when Mary Jo, his wife of nearly 60 years, died very suddenly of a hemorrhage. As we sat in his living room in the middle of the night and in the challenging days in the six months since, dad continues to choose the way of faith. While he desperately misses mom and looks forward to a heavenly reunion, he refuses to let fear freeze his faith. He is involved in multiple Bible studies, prayer and social groups, and is actively building a model train town.
“Do not be afraid,” said the angel.
Looking around this community, I know there are many reasons we can freeze in fear. Dozens are reeling from the loss of loved ones. Others are recovering from surgeries and strokes, searching for jobs and housing, or wondering if they’ll be able to stay anywhere near San Francisco. And that’s before we get to the news and worry about whether a Tweet will send us to war.
Look into the tomb. Look at the worst that life can throw at you.
Even death does not win.
“Do not be afraid,” says Jesus.
I know there is plenty to fear in this world.
May we rise up with the resurrected Christ.
 Stanley P. Saunders, Preaching the Gospel of Matthew: Proclaiming God’s Presence (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 296-298.