Fear and Joy

Carla J. Bailey, Easter Sunday April 16, 2017

Scripture Matthew 28:1–10

In my childhood home, spring never arrived until well into May, so Easter, no matter when it came on the calendar, was always cold, icy and wintry. But on Easter Day, we pretended it was spring. We wore spring clothes under our jackets and boots. We forced flowers to bloom along windowsills. We searched for hidden eggs in the living room instead of outside in the snow. We never dared attend a sunrise service. It may explain some of the weird traditions we observed at Easter. For example, before eating one of the decorated eggs, we would crack it on someone’s head. Since my father was bald, he was the logical target. Of course, there were rules. We had to actually eat the eggs we cracked on Dad’s head, which cut the head-cracking down some, but with five children, I’m sure my father dreaded this holiday. It’s a family tradition that hasn’t been passed on. Warren, whose head for obvious reasons would have been the next best target, put a halt to that particular, peculiar tradition. Well, whatever your peculiar traditions, a joyous Resurrection Day to you all.

I’ve been responsible for orchestrating Easter events in churches now for the past 37 years, and those years yield many happy memories. Ironically though, the older I get, the closer I am to the end of my ministry than to its beginning, the harder these Easter sermons are to write. You’d think it would be the other way around, wouldn’t you? That with practice would come ease? But along with all those happy memories of Easters past comes knowledge of heartbreaks around the world: senseless deaths, exploited children, poisoned creation and the steadfast drumbeat for war. I suppose it might be said that when you’re a child, you know more about Easter and less about Good Friday. When you become an adult, Good Friday’s sorrows become more familiar and Easter’s joy more elusive.

My dear friend and mentor William Sloane Coffin died in April 2006, a few days before Easter. I had just seen him a few days before. It was a quiet, peaceful death, the kind of death I imagine we might all wish for, once we’ve accepted that we will die. Even so, I was heartbroken that year. But something funny happened to me last year, here at Plymouth Church. We had just finished singing the “Hallelujah Chorus,” like we’ll do again in a few moments to close our Easter celebration, and I suddenly remembered an image I’d seen of Bill on an Easter Sunday at Riverside Church in New York. The choir and the congregation, accompanied by a magnificent organ and a full brass choir, sang Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” and there was Bill in his scarlet robe, long arms fully extended, directing the masses as if he were directing the angels themselves. It made me laugh out loud, remembering him so clearly, so full of life and joy and passion. I was so caught up in the memory, I forgot I was supposed to pronounce the Benediction until Paula leaned over and said something like “you’re on.” The memory of Bill was an Easter gift.

I was privileged to have many long and wonderful conversations with Bill during the last years of his life. No one has been as influential over my Christian faith as Bill Coffin. We talked about almost everything: politics, of course, and political strategy, racism, homophobia and war. We talked about Jesus quite a bit, as Christian preachers sometimes will: who he was, what he did and how far Christianity has strayed from the courageous, justice-seeking, minority counter-cultural revolution it was. We wondered, together, whether the Christian Church would or even could regain its moral authority in the world.

On more than one occasion, I tried to get Bill to talk about life after death, or even just what he thought would happen—to him—when he died. But he would never go there. “One world at a time,” he would respond. Once, I did get him to tell me whom he would most like to see on the other side, but that turned into a reminiscence about two cherished friends he deeply missed, not a description of heaven. For Bill, Easter’s message was not about the individual reassurance that there is life after death. The dewy garden at dawn with its rolled-away stone, empty tomb and mysterious messages gave him no comfort, except as they pointed to God’s insistence that the messenger could be executed—and would be, over and over and over again, because the message threatens powers and principalities—but the message will live again, forever.

When Jesus was executed, those who loved him were too much in shock and fear to remember any of the reassuring words he spoke to them about his death. Matthew’s version of the events of those last days tell us there was an earthquake, and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus was ridiculed while he suffered on the cross. His clothes became like chips in a poker game. Those who had plotted successfully for his execution appeared to have won the day, and Rome—powerful, chillingly efficient Rome—dealt the final blow. It was the most horrible few days for his disciples any of us could possibly imagine.

Fear is all over Matthew’s Passion story—fear and violence and betrayal and bartering and derision. Other Gospel accounts of the resurrection discovery are more restrained. The women came to the tomb and found it empty. But Matthew tells us there was a great earthquake and a vision of an angel rolling back the stone from the tomb’s entrance. The guards were so afraid, they shook and went into shock. When the angel told them Jesus had been raised and that they were to go to Galilee where they would see him, the women ran in fear. Matthew’s version of the story is filled with discordant, disturbing things that stand in contrast to our celebration with trumpets and lilies.

Jesus’ life—his ministry, so to speak—was a balance between two essential purposes: He cared deeply for those who suffered, particularly those whose suffering was made worse by the arbitrary laws of his own religion and of Rome. The source of his drive to heal people was his compassion for them. He loved them: the demoniac, the bleeding woman, the lepers, the blind. He loved them, he was moved by their circumstances and so he healed them.

An equally essential purpose for Jesus’ ministry was to bring to fruition, in real time, God’s justice. Why were these people poor? Who withheld essential care for them? How could they be so marginalized, so ostracized, these women, those children, the legion who suffered and struggled just to live? The answer to those questions, of course, goes to the very heart of God’s desire for justice. Jesus was committed to doing both these things—embracing with love and compassion those who suffered, and confronting the very systems that brought such suffering about.

A critical, secular appraisal of Jesus’ work would tell us that, in these efforts, he was only marginally successful. He did ease the suffering of a few, but his confrontation with the restrictive laws of his faith served primarily to enrage the religious leaders, and his disdain for Rome resulted in Rome’s harshest penalty. Jesus lived as if there was nothing to fear in confronting injustice, nothing to fear in enraging those who exercised punitive and selfish power, nothing to fear in living a life of genuine generosity.

The critical point, however—and it is the source of our joy as we celebrate the resurrection every year—the critical point is that living life as Jesus lived does not spare us from the repercussions of such faithfulness: both the fear and the joy. I’ll tell you something—it would be easier to live in acquiescence to powers and principalities. It’s easier to give in, get along and play nice. For some, Christian discipleship means unconsciously enjoying the privilege of participating in the dominant culture. We get the best jellybeans, and we haven’t had to do anything difficult for them! Yes, it’s good to be triumphant!

But here’s the thing, and it’s why Matthew’s disciples were so afraid: Faithful discipleship to God’s will as Jesus lived it does not mean we get to watch Jesus relieve the suffering of others and confront all the systems, prejudices and laws that exacerbate that suffering as if it were a movie—a Netflix moment we get to watch every year in the spring. No, there is a cost to living the way God demands of us, the way Jesus taught us, the way that led him to the cross—a high cost. Since we know the way the story of Jesus’ life ended, we, like the disciples, might just be a little afraid. But the conclusion of the Christian story, God’s triumphant word rather than our culture’s triumph, is what we celebrate today—and every day we work to alleviate suffering, love the unlovable and demand justice: Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid, Matthew reminds us: the Risen Christ told his disciples, all his disciples and even us, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” And there is the word of joy—deep, reliable, steadfast and constant, our companion and our guide—we will never do this hard work alone.

A most joyful Easter to you all. Amen.