Afraid and Amazed

Mark 16:1-8                                                                         Easter Sunday

Elizabeth M. Deibert                                                          5 April 2015

 It happens about once a month.   Someone will make a comment to me about their own death.   Someone said to me this week, speaking of cancer, “I’m not doing that!”  It was a tongue-in-cheek comment, but many of us wish we could choose our style of death, like we choose our food from a menu.  Many people will claim that they’d like to die suddenly, because they don’t like the idea of a process.  But we have to remember that the suffering process often has a constructive purpose, especially for those who are losing someone.  Don’t forget that sudden deaths are traumatic for those who care about you.   Ask fifteen year-old Dayla, who lost two close friends in a tragic car accident in Ohio last week.    

 But prolonged dying processes are painful too.  Mary Ann Grantham father’s slow decline over the last couple of years has consumed all the family’s energy.   Sudden deaths, prolonged decline, and that’s not all.   There are terminal diagnoses that hurl us suddenly into the fullness of life with family and friends and the frenzy of doing whatever we can to maximize quality time.  In September Don McIlwain was helping their son Don with repairs in his house.  In December a vacation with family.   In January a seizure led to the discovery of more than ten tumors in his brain.   And on Maundy Thursday, as we gathered in this chapel for communion, the sun went down on Don’s earthly life, but I am sure he is communing with us today.   

At a recent Stephen Ministry continuing education class, we discuss our greatest fears with the aging process.  I said I feared losing my mind before my body – although if I have to have Alzheimer’s, I certainly hope I will be as kind and humorous as John Bloxsome is.   He is a joy to visit.   At Stephen Ministry, my discussion partner said she most feared isolation at the end of life.   John is not isolated; he is well cared for by staff and by devoted wife Jean.  But isolation can be a problem.  Ask Diane Engster, who cares for her mother at home and communicates with thousands of people on Facebook who are doing the same as she. 

Well, here we are on Easter morning.   Why am I talking so much about decline and death?   We have to talk of death because Easter is the victory of life over death.  Death is still our enemy; yet as we sit in its shadow, with Christ, we are able to hold our fear and faith in tandem.   We are afraid and astonished by death.   But we cannot ignore it.  

The news over the last week has kept us fixed on the deathly plane crash in Europe because we all fear a depression so complex and deep that it would lead one to purposely crash a plane full of people.   We fear terrorist attacks like the one at Garissa University in Kenya, where we see that nearly 150 people have been brutally murdered by a Somalian militant group.    We cannot ignore death, because life is so valuable.

To ignore death would be like trying to talk about the Duke victory without mentioning Michigan State or the Wisconsin game without speaking of Kentucky.  Well, if we don’t talk about loss, we cannot fully embrace the life that triumphs over loss, over death.   If we don’t talk about fear, we cannot find faith.  

 It makes me think about how fear drives so many of our actions.  Psychology teaches us that fear can lead us to fight or to flight.   That’s when we are operating out of our amygdala, the reflexive part of the brain.  Yet when we slow down and allow the rest of our brain to catch up, fear can turn to faith, to amazement, to awestruck worship.  

 So let’s turn our thoughts to a fearful group of grieving women who had watched Jesus Christ die on the cross, standing at a distance.  They saw him mocked by the soliders.  They were watching when the centurion said, “Surely this man was God’s Son.   They observed Joseph of Arimathea taking the body down and laying it in the tomb.   Hear now the story from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 16, vv 1-8:

Mark 16:1-8

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.

2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 They had been saying to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?" 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.

6 But he said to them, "Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you." 8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.  (NRSV)

 It’s an abrupt ending.   They fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had grabbed their amygdala, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.   Dramatic!   Let’s walk through the emotions of the day.   The women start out with an act of dutiful love.  Anointing dead bodies with spices was a customary way to honor someone you loved in the first century.  As they approach their anxiety grows as they consider the weight of the stone.   And then they are shocked to see the stone had been moved.   They move from shock to alarm when they see in place where they expected Jesus’ body, a man in a white robe, who tells them not to be afraid.   He says, “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, but he has been raised.   Look – he is not here.  That’s where he was laid.”   The man/angel tells them to go and tell the disciples and especially Peter that Jesus is coming to Galilee to meet them.   “You will see him, just as he told you.” 

So despite the very reassuring message from the young man in white, they are not reassured.  They are still reacting in fear.  They run.  How often are we like this – we get a sensible message of good news, but our fear is stoked, so we continue to act out of fear, not faith?   When faith is operating, we stop to breathe, to take in the news, to calm self and remind self that God never fails us.  

Not even death, our greatest enemy, can get the last word.  We can be afraid and know that amazement will overcome our fear.  We can be silenced by shock, knowing that our shock will settle into surprising joy.  We can grieve while rejoicing that hope will overcome despair.  We can have moments of doubt, knowing deeper trust to be just around the corner of the struggle to believe.   

We can walk through the valley of the shadow of death, knowing that green pastures, still waters, and a bountiful table of grace and life forever will be ours.    We can be filled with anxiety but grow in confidence that all the heavy stones standing in our life’s path, will be moved away, clearing room for good news and rejoicing.

St. John Chrysostom of the 4th Century preached a sermon that has been repeated in Eastern Orthodox Churches year after year at Easter.  Hear pieces of this ancient yet still relevant sermon as I have adapted it for our proclamation today. 

Christ our God is generous and accepts the last even as the first.  He accepts the deed and commends the intention.  Enter therefore into the joy of the Lord, both first and last, to receive your reward.   Let none fear death for the death of the Savior has set us free.  Christ is risen.  He has destroyed death by undergoing death.  He has ruined hell by descending into hell.   The bitterness of hell could not stand up against Christ’s goodness.  The bitterness of hell was brought down to nothing, overthrown, put in chains.  Hell received Christ’s body and encountered God.   It received earth and encountered heaven.    O death, where is your sting?   O hell, where is your victory?  

Christ is risen.   He is risen indeed.  Death is defeated.   Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed.   All the darkness of hell has been stripped of its power to frighten us.   Christ is risen.   He is risen indeed.  The angels rejoice.     We may be afraid in the moment, but amazement is coming.  Because Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed.   Life is liberated.   Don’t be afraid.   The tomb is empty.   Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed.   Alleluia!   Amen.

Singing:  Be not afraid.   Sing out for joy.   Christ is risen.   Alleluia.