Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | April 12, 2009

2009.04.12 “Fear and Trembling” Easter Sunday

Central United Methodist Church

Pastor David L. Haley

“Fear and Trembling”

Easter Sunday

April 12th, 2009

     When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so they could embalm him.  Very early on Sunday morning, as the sun rose, they went to the tomb. They worried out loud to each other, “Who will roll back the stone from the tomb for us?”  Then they looked up, saw that it had been rolled back — it was a huge stone — and walked right in.  As they entered, they were startled by a young man sitting there, dressed in white. He said, “Don’t be afraid. I know you’re looking for Jesus the Nazarene, the One they nailed on the cross. He’s been raised up; he’s here no longer. You can see for yourselves that the place is empty. Now — on your way. Tell his disciples and Peter that he is going on ahead of you to Galilee. You’ll see him there, exactly as he said.” They got out as fast as they could, beside themselves, their heads swimming.  Stunned, they said nothing to anyone. ’– Mark 16: 1 – 8

It was many years ago now, in a church I pastored, that a young man in the congregation who appeared confident and gifted, offered to preach the Laity Sunday sermon, an offer I accepted. 

On the morning he was to speak, he appeared at church, looking shaken and ashen. Before the service, his condition worsened, such that by the time it was to begin, we had to lay him out on the back pew, in a cold sweat, feet higher than his head, in the grips of a severe anxiety reaction.

Whether or not you’ve done any public speaking, at sometime or another you’ve experienced such a visceral reaction. In it’s most intense form it’s the “flight/fight/freeze” syndrome, the body’s physiological response to a real or perceived threat. If you’ve been scared or threatened, you know what I’m talking about. In an instant, in a reflex as old as the human race, your body dumps adrenaline: your heart rate soars (the heart in the throat feeling), blood is shunted from the core to the muscles (butterflies in the stomach), you break into a cold sweat as blood is shunted from the skin, your body is prepared for action. If there is no immediate physical action, as in flight or fight, you may begin to shake or tremble. “Fear and trembling,” we call it. 

 On Easter, I describe this, and tell the story of my friend not with scorn but sympathy, because there’s no Sunday of the year that I approach with more fear and trembling – no Sunday of the year when I come closer to winding up prostrate in a pew with my feet higher than my head – than Easter Sunday. 

It’s not just the work of additional services and sermons.  It’s not just the anxiety about all that can go wrong, as Holy Thursday for example, when my wireless microphone battery died and the projection slides were wrong and I spilled grape juice all over my white robe, which I wound up completely trashing later when I tried to get the grape juice out with bleach. No, that doesn’t bother me, bother me, bother me . . . . 

I suffer fear and trembling on Easter Sunday because it’s such a daunting day to preach. 

It’s a daunting story. As John Buchanan, pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, put it this week in the Christian Century:

“Every year we preachers eagerly look for help with the daunting challenge of preparing an Easter sermon. Never are we as acutely aware of our own limitations, intellectual and spiritual, as when we try to find words to express the reality that a dead man didn’t remain dead.” (Christian Century, April 21, 2009)

It’s daunting because of the importance of the story.  As the late John Updike put into the mouth of a fictional preacher, in A Prayer for Owen Meany:

“I find that Holy Week is draining; no matter how many times I have lived through [Jesus] crucifixion, my anxiety about the resurrection is undiminished — I am terrified, that this year, it won’t happen; that, that year, it didn’t. Anyone can be sentimental about the nativity; any fool can feel like a Christian at Christmas. But Easter is the main event: if you don’t believe in the resurrection, you’re not a believer.”

Easter is also daunting to preach not just because of the story, and its importance, but because of the story’s import to us, Easter congregation. While I know there are some of you who just needed a place to go before Easter brunch, most of you come here seeking a word of hope.  Because, at one time or another — and someday again — all of us have stood and will stand looking into the abyss, filled with fear and trembling.

With the current economy, many of you are here anxious about that.  A article last week in the New York Times, “Recession Anxiety Seeps into Everyday Lives,” (April 9, 2009, by Pam Belluck) recounted the increasing numbers of people around the country experiencing severe anxiety reactions — like the one I described in my friend — as they worry about or actually face the loss of jobs or homes or health insurance or savings. I talked Friday with Maureen DiFrancesca, Director of Human Services here in Skokie, and she said there are some 700 homes here in Skokie alone, facing foreclosure.

There are others who come to this Easter service with fear and trembling, for reasons other than the economy:

–   a young person weighing faith, and whether to believe

–   my son, Chris, here, leaving his new wife, Lynne, to head off as a

Marine to the war zone of Iraq

– others who facing disease, depression, or addiction, or troubled


–  some who have just faced or are facing the impending loss of a loved

one; standing there at a hospital bed or at a graveside, never do we feel more like we are stare into the abyss. (Our sympathy especially today to Joe Poprawski upon the death, Friday, of his sister)

–   and of course, all of us, facing our own death, never knowing just

                when or how it shall come. But come, we know it will.

        Yes, on Easter Sunday the stakes are high, not only for preachers, but all of us. In baseball, it would be the last of the ninth, with the bases loaded, and a count of three and two. In basketball, it’s five seconds on the clock, the score is tied, and you’re at the free throw line. (Sorry, football fans, I’m from KY, and our sports are baseball and basketball.)

        What a surprise when we turn to the Easter Gospel of Mark, and find that it too is filled with fear and trembling – not just at the beginning, but at its end.

        In Mark — the earliest Gospel, written about 40 years after the events described — the women Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, head back to the tomb in the early morning, to anoint the body of Jesus.

        By this time, they would be emotionally depleted. Sitting here on an Easter morning, we might not remember what they had been through, unless you were here for Holy Thursday and Good Friday. Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, his beating and torture, his death on the cross. There they were, Jesus’ disciples on the periphery of the police line, helpless witnesses, finally hopeless, themselves threatened with arrest and execution.

        If you’ve ever been through a comparable experience, you know how it feels. After days of exhausting emotional and physical response, after sleeplessness and tears, your body is drained, depleted. When morning comes, if you sleep at all, you awake to hope it’s all been a nightmare; but then it’s not. The truth is, until you’ve been through such an experience, you may not appreciate what Easter is about. As Biblical scholar and prophet Walter Brueggemann reminded us Friday evening, “Die and Be Raised;” that is the Biblical order.

        As the women walk to the tomb, they worry aloud about who will roll away the stone. But when they arrive, the stone is already rolled back. They are startled (remember what happens when we’re startled?) by a young man sitting there, dressed in white. The even more startling message he gives is:

             “Don’t be afraid. I know you’re looking for Jesus the Nazarene, the

One they nailed to the cross. He’s been raised up; he’s here no longer. You can see for yourselves that the place is empty. Now — on your way. Tell his disciples and Peter that he is going on ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there, exactly as he said.”

      Note their response: “They got out as fast as they could, beside themselves, their heads swimming. Stunned, they said nothing to anyone.” Other translations render it as “trembling and bewildered,” “confused and shaking.” I’d call it, “fear and trembling.”

      With that, the Gospel ends. Not only does it fail to provide proper narrative closure, it lurches to an awkward grammatical ending. A more literal translation would sound like Yoda from Star Wars: “To no one anything they said; afraid they were for . . .”  It’s as if the author of Mark had been dragged from his desk in mid-sentence.”   Is this any way to run a resurrection?

      And yet, over my years of preaching the Easter story, I’ve come to love Mark’s version best. Not only because it’s the first, upon which Matthew and Luke, and later, John, would elaborate; but because it has the ring of truth.

      What author Frederick Buechner says about all the Gospel resurrection accounts applies especially to Mark:

      “It doesn’t have the ring of great drama. It has the ring of truth. If the Gospel writers had wanted to tell it in a way to convince the world that Jesus indeed rose from the dead, they would presumably have done it with all the skill and fanfare they could muster.  Here there is no skill, no fanfare. They simply seem to be telling it the way it was. The narrative is as fragmented, shadowy, incomplete as life itself. When it comes to just what happened, there can be no certainty. That something unimaginable happened, there can be no doubt.” (Whistling in the Dark, “Easter”, p. 42.)

      I believe Mark is trying to impart a different kind of Easter joy, trying to reveal another dimension of the Easter faith. As you come to the last verse and contemplate the unfinished ending, fretting that the Jesus story ends in fear and trembling, wondering where to go from here, an insight shatters the silence. “Go tell his disciples,” the young man said. “He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” Back to Galilee, back where it began, back to their homes and the scenes of their lives. Jesus goes before you; he will meet you there.” (Thomas Long, Dangling Gospel, The Christian Century, April 4, 2006)

        When Mark wrote his gospel, he knew that most of the people he was writing to were already Christian believers and did not have to be convinced of Jesus’ resurrection. He knew what St. Thomas Aquinas was later to say, that “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.” So Mark must be doing something different than just giving information in his resurrection account.

        The Christians to whom he wrote were living under the reign of the Emperor Nero, one of the greatest Christian persecutor who ever lived.  It was under Nero that both Peter and Paul were executed; many of Mark’s readers faced the same fate.

        So they didn’t need a history lesson about who found an empty tomb; they needed an assurance that Jesus was still there with them in their troubles and trials and deaths, especially when they felt like failures. 

        What Mark tells them – what he tells us – is that Jesus goes ahead of them through the trials, sufferings, and death they will face. Jesus goes ahead of them to the resurrection from the dead.  Even if they have failed Jesus, Jesus will not fail them.

What an exciting insight — that Jesus isn’t in a tomb, where everyone expects to find him, way off in the past, but way out ahead of us, where we will see him, in our future. What a comforting assurance, that we shall meet him – not in the places we might expect, in the structures we have made for him – in religious tradition and rites, in liturgies or creeds – but out where where we live and work and play, where we struggle and weep and hope.  Whatever we have been through; he has been there.  Whatever we may go through, he will be there.  Even when we stare into the abyss, with fear and trembling.

As Gospel composer Thomas Dorsey put it, right here in Chicago in 1932, in the song he wrote upon hearing of the death of his wife and his child;

        “Precious Lord, take my hand; lead me on, let me stand,

        I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;

        through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light:

        Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.”

        Yes, we come here today, preacher and people alike, with fear and trembling, anxious about our future is going to be, anxious about what the next year is going to bring,  anxious about what fearful situations we are going to face, about that deep and dark day that will be out there when we have face the abyss. Not knowing the future, none of us know the particulars of what life is going to bring. 

        But what we do know is this:

        As Quaker D. Elton Trueblood put it: “Faith is not belief without proof, but trust without reservation.”

        What we do know is this:  As educator, author, ordained Disciples of Christ minister and poet Patrick Overton put it in a poem, entitled: “Faith”:

                “When you walk to the edge of all the light you have

                and take that first step into the darkness of the unknown,

                you must believe that one of two things will happen;

                        There will be something solid for you to stand on,

                        or, you will be taught how to fly.”

                                (Patrick Overton, The Leaning Tree, 1975)

        What we do know is this:

        Do not be afraid!  Jesus the Nazarene, the One they nailed on the cross, the One you are looking for — He is not here, he is risen.  Now — on your way.  He goes before you . . .  You will see him there.

        Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!


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