Sunday, March 23, 2008

(Easter Sunday) To dance with the joyful

Matthew 28:1-10; Jeremiah 31:1-6

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There’s been an awful lot of global hand-wringing lately.
The whole world seems to be in a state of anxiety, even panic.
With good reason.
As a human race, threats to our health, indeed our survival,
seem to be at an all-time high.
You could make a case that we live in an age of global fear.

Yes, there have always been periods of fear that overwhelmed us.
Some of you remember World War II,
and the fear that followed Pearl Harbor.
Others, like me, remember the Cuban missile crisis,
the Cold War, and the nuclear arms race.

Twenty-five years ago this year I became a pastor
in a new church plant in Gainesville, Florida.
Irene and I are going down there in a couple months
to help celebrate their 25th anniversary as a congregation.
I remember some of our first conversations as a church,
as we tried to sort out our mission priorities.
There were no other churches in the city
with a strong peace conviction grounded in Jesus.
So we decided our calling was to give public witness
to our faith in Christ, as the Prince of Peace.

And in the early ‘80's, the main cause of global fear
was the proliferation of nuclear arms.
U.S. and the Soviet Union tried, and failed, several times,
to make treaties to reduce their nuclear weapon stockpile.
I remember our tiny church in Gainesville—Emmanuel Mennonite—
holding outdoor prayer vigils, and other public witness events,
to proclaim a Christ-centered opposition to nuclear arms,
the greatest threat to the human race we could imagine.

But as I think about global threats today,
the nuclear arms race seems almost quaint.
Back then, we still believed human reason would prevail.
As global super-powers,
with nuclear missiles loaded and aimed at each other,
we and the Soviets had every incentive
not to let things get out of hand.
We had what we called “Mutual Assured Destruction.”
If either country pushed the nuclear button,
both civilizations would be utterly destroyed.
Thinking human beings would never let that happen.

Today, it’s not two superpowers in a stalemate.
Dozens of nations around the world, potential enemies of ours,
have power that equals or exceeds ours—
economically, if not militarily.
Even worse, not all our enemies are nations.
Underground networks of bitter, disenfranchised extremists,
bent on violence,
have no qualms about
killing human beings in large numbers,
and killing themselves in the process, if need be.
It’s a global threat that, as a nation, we have no idea
how to engage in any constructive, life-giving way.
So we do the only we can think of—
try to find their hiding places,
and bomb them into submission,
hoping that will convince them to give up violence.

And that’s just one of the global issues to be afraid of.
We are in a global environmental crisis—
threatening the health of the human race.
We are in a global economic crisis—
it was in the news most every day this past week.
We are on the verge, many experts believe,
of a global outbreak of some flu pandemic or the like.
And the list could go on.
In his sermon a couple weeks ago
Ross talked about some of these global crises.

But why—on this glorious Easter morning,
with the sound of “Alleluias” still ringing in our ears,
with the sights and smells of springtime all around us—
why would I start this sermon by reminding us
of these terrifying global threats to life as we know it?

Well, for one, the world we inhabit today operates on fear.
Global fear is so pervasive we cannot ignore it.
It needs to be named.
But even more to the point,
there is no better time than Easter Sunday morning,
to name and celebrate the antidote to global fear,
God’s eternal victory over death and the grave.

If we didn’t take this opportunity to openly name our fears,
both global and personal.
we would be robbing Easter of its real power
to meet, confront, and overcome
the pervasive sin and brokenness of life in this world.
If all we did was try to lift the mood
with lots of joyful sounds and colors,
lots of cheerful sights and smells...
If all we did this morning was try to get our minds off our fears,
with upbeat song, and dance,
and over-used Easter words of cheer,
what we’d be doing this morning would not be worship.
It might be a psycho-spiritual pep rally,
but it would not be the worship
of the God who raised Jesus from the dead,
and through love, conquered every source of our fear.

Easter is one day of the year we set aside,
to explicitly name this open confrontation
between the power of our loving, life-giving, Creator God,
and the powers of sin and death and evil active in our world,
and to remind ourselves that in that confrontation
2,000 years ago outside of Jerusalem,
God won.
And God still wins.

Easter Day is not just a day to sing beautiful, roof-raising music,
to make ourselves feel good.
It’s a day to remind ourselves why we sing.
And the reason we sing,
is that sin and death and evil does not have—
never did and never will have—the last word.

What Easter Sunday really is,
is an annual reminder that this power of God
is still available and accessible to us today,
as we walk through this broken, and fear-filled world.

Fear comes in several varieties.
There is the kind of fear that paralyzes—
that renders us helpless and hopeless and immobilized.
And there is the kind of fear that drives us—
that motivates us to move toward the God who saves.

Both kinds of fear are found in today’s Gospel story from Matthew 28.
Let’s look at the first kind.
When the earthquake struck, an angel of the Lord came down,
and sat on the tomb stone.
“The guards,” Matthew says in chapter 28, verse 4,
“were so afraid of him
that they shook and became like dead men.”

There is a fear that makes us like dead men.
That strikes us with paralysis.
That keeps us from engaging the source of our fear.
The guards at the tomb fainted because they were spooked.
If I was walking alone in the woods at night,
and someone jumped out from behind a tree and yelled at me,
I could see me becoming “like a dead man.”
But it’s not only a startle response, that can paralyze us.
Paralysis is a way we choose to respond to all kinds of fear.

Global crises—
like war, terrorism, poverty, genocide, global warming—
can easily make us become “like dead men.”
But so can the up-close and personal crises we deal with
in our homes, and community, and church,
and in our secret, interior lives.

We can become so overwhelmed by the crisis,
and the hopelessness of it ever changing,
that we become paralyzed.
We don’t know what to do, so we do nothing.
We find it harder to enjoy the everyday wonders of life.
So we go through the motions,
gloomy, fatalistic, and detached from the world.

Or we try the opposite.
We summon our power of positive thinking.
Try to “keep on the sunny side.”
Take our minds off the crisis by avoiding it,
not talking about it, or even thinking about it.
But shallow smiles and nervous laughter are a thin veneer,
meant to distract others,
and to distract ourselves,
from the death-like fear just under the surface.
So, smiling or not, we’re still “like dead men,”
because when we shut out a whole range of life experiences,
painful though they are,
we are not fully alive.

All of us do that sometimes.
When we try not to think
about how many people died last week in Iraq,
or not make an effort to understand what’s going on
in Tibet, or Iran, or Sudan, or the Gaza Strip.
Or when we greet all our friends with a smile,
but never tell them we’re in a bout of depression,
and can barely keep our head above water.
Or when someone asks us what’s going on in our lives,
and we say, “Oh, not much,”
after a week when the stress level at home went through the roof,
and the kids are acting out in school because of it.
Or when we and our spouse make a concerted effort
to laugh and have friendly chatter when we walk into church,
but at home we rarely have a civil conversation with each other.

When the shadows of life overwhelm us,
a very basic fear response, and one we go to by default,
is paralysis.
An unwillingness, or an inability,
to honestly engage the source of our fear.

But there are other people in today’s Gospel story
who were deathly afraid.
Wasn’t just the guards.
There was Mary Magdalene and the other Mary.
These two women saw and experienced
the same thing the guards did.
They were right there in front of the tomb, according to Matthew 28,
when the earthquake happened,
when the angel who looked like lightning
descended on the tomb,
rolled away the stone, and sat on it.
They were right there when the angel spoke to them,
saying, “Do not be afraid.
He is not here; he has risen, just as he said.
Now, go and tell his disciples.”

They were every bit as afraid as the guards were.
Had to be.
But they didn’t give in to their fears, and become paralyzed.
Their fears drove them toward Jesus.
Verse 8 says, “Afraid, yet filled with joy, the ran from the tomb.”
And they practically ran over Jesus.
Verse 9, “Suddenly Jesus met them.”
And in their fear, and in their joy,
they clung to the risen Jesus, in worship, and gratitude.
Not knowing what danger they would soon have to face.
But knowing who they needed to have on their side, to face it.

Oh, to be like the Mary’s,
whose great fear sent them running to the arms of Jesus.
Instead of pulling back into themselves,
instead of taking a defensive posture,
instead of being overwhelmed with their inability
to make things better on their own,
their fear drove them toward the God
whose love and power conquers even death.

Our Easter opportunity,
is to refuse to deny, defer, or disclaim the fact
that sin and death and brokenness and evil
are rampant in this world, and in our own lives.
Our opportunity is to name the darkness,
and hold it up to the resurrection light of God.
To invite the power of our loving, life-giving, Creator God,
to engage the life-sapping powers of this world,
and to disarm them.

Easter is a day to be reminded
that we worship and serve the God of Victory.
We need not be paralyzed by our fears.
We need not shut down, or close off.
And we need not muster up some
so-called power of positive thinking,
and try to fix it ourselves.

We need rather to engage, by faith, the God of Victory who is with us.
We need to do what the prophet said we would do,
in this morning’s reading.
Jeremiah 31:4 said,
“Again you will take up your timbrels
and go out to dance with the joyful.”

Joyful dancers are not the ones who have no fears.
They are the ones who choose to run with their fears,
toward the God who saves,
and like the two Mary’s,
combine their great fear and great joy,
into a great dance.
Dance is the exact opposite of “becoming like dead men.”
Dance, figuratively speaking, is what Mary and Mary did,
as they ran from the tomb and ran into Jesus.
And dance, figuratively speaking, or literally if you so choose,
is what we can do this morning,
as we come to the Lord’s Table,
as we sing and continue our worship of God the Victor.
And dance is what we can do as we leave this place
to go back into a world governed more by paralyzing fear,
than by trust in the God who has already
scored the ultimate victory over sin and death.

Thanks be to God.
And let’s dance.
And let’s sing.

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