“The Shock of Resurrection”
Easter Sunday, March 23, 2008
Matthew 28: 1-10
There is one phrase in the Easter story as told in the Gospel of Matthew that has compelled my attention this year. Mary Magdalene and another woman named Mary went to visit Jesus’ tomb Sunday morning. An angel appeared and told them Jesus had been raised. The angel told them to go tell Jesus’ disciples that he had been resurrected.
Then it says that Mary and Mary “left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy.” Here’s the phrase – with fear and great joy.
Resurrection always comes as a surprise, but surprise is too tame a word…it comes as a shock. Resurrection is not something we do; it is something God does to us. But how we choose to respond to the surprise and shock of resurrection makes Easter.
Easter has two parts, both of which are necessary for it to be Easter. The first part is the resurrection of Jesus. There is no Easter without Jesus’ resurrection.
But the second part is what Jesus’ followers do after his resurrection. There is no Easter without the disciples’ response.
What happens to Jesus’ followers is as important as what happens to Jesus. If Easter is only Jesus’ resurrection then all we have here is some sort of bizarre fluke of nature. It is the response of Jesus’ disciples that turns the world upside down.
So the response of Jesus’ followers, represented here by the two women Mary and Mary, is a critical part of Easter. Here’s what Matthew’s Gospel says happened: Mary and Mary left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy. This is the response within Mary and Mary: fear and great joy.
Fear and joy are conflicting emotions. They are confusing emotions to experience at the same time, jumbled up together inside us. Why fear and great joy?
Let’s begin with fear. Why fear? Why were Mary and Mary afraid?
Because it always scares us when the rules change…and what more shocking change in the rules could there be than a dead person alive again? What rule is more dependable than that the dead stay dead? When Roman soldiers crucify someone he stays crucified. The executed stay executed. The dead stay dead. This is rule number one, after which – some say – rule number two is taxes.
Rules provide us with security and safety. Just tell me what the rules of the game are, we say. When the rules begin to change, we become anxious and afraid because we can’t be sure if up is still up and down is still down. Resurrection changes the rules, and rules are our security blankets and reassuring habits. Without rules the world becomes an undependable place. That’s why fear.
So, why great joy? Why did Mary and Mary experience great joy?
Because when the rules change, it is also exciting, heady. It opens the possibility of liberation and new life.
If the dead don’t have to stay dead, all sorts of things are possible. If the crucified don’t have to stay crucified, then Mary and Mary don’t have to live in the tomb of patriarchy anymore. Great joy!
If the crucified don’t need to stay crucified, Gentiles don’t have to go on being treated like dogs anymore. Great joy!
If the crucified don’t need to stay crucified, there no longer needs to be Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. Great joy!
If the crucified don’t need to stay crucified, we can be freed from our racial cocoons, our isolated and segregated lives, our closets, our abusive relationships, and our addictions. Great joy!
Inside of Mary and Mary are two competing emotions – fear and great joy. This is always our initial response to resurrection.
to talk for a few minutes about race in
feeling depressed about the racial tension in
Then suddenly this weekend I moved from fear to joy. I realized that the tension we are experiencing is because the rules are changing. What we are experiencing is the shock of resurrection which always causes within us fear and great joy all mixed up together.
I was the pastor of a primarily African-American congregation for several years in the 1980’s. When I say primarily African-American I mean all but two people in the congregation were African-American. One of the two who was not African-American was married to me.
It was the most fearful and joyous experience of my life. Every day we had to choose between fear and joy.
I knew it was a sacrifice for a congregation of African-Americans of the generation who had grown up before and during the civil rights movement to have a white pastor.
For African-Americans, church in those days was where you could go to say what you really thought and what you really felt without white people looking over your shoulder disapprovingly. Church was something – sometimes the only thing – that belonged to you, that you got to run. Church was where you could let your guard down.
Suddenly now you’ve got a white pastor. He is in some ways an intruder; yet, you’ve got to treat him well because there is no higher value among a people who know what it is like to be put out than hospitality.
It was frightening for me, too. I was always nervous I would say or do something offensive. There are all sorts of things white people do that are offensive and we have no idea. I was careful and guarded, and members of the congregation were careful and cautious around me.
We eventually figured out how to be church together. But every day we had to choose between fear and joy.
One turning point was when three men in the congregation invited me to go with them to a men’s prayer breakfast at a neighboring church. We had a fine breakfast. As was often the case in those days, I was the only white person in the room. Then it was time for the speaker.
The speaker spoke on the superiority of the black race over the white race. He quoted scientific studies that proved, he claimed, that the brains of black people are, on average, larger and more developed than the brains of white people. It was a mirror image of the foolish pseudo-science white people had used for centuries to supposedly prove they were superior to black people. A mirror image.
I could tell that the three men who had invited me to the breakfast were mortified, just absolutely mortified. They sat as stiff as if they were corpses.
One of the men had driven us there. After breakfast and the speech, we got in his car. The ride back began in a very uncomfortable silence. Nobody knew what to say. Finally I decided I had to say something to break the ice. So this is what I said: “He’s not all wrong, you know? Every black person I have known,” I said, “has had a more developed brain than my white brother-in-law.”
Every day we had to choose between fear and joy. The rules were changing and every day we had to choose between fear and joy.
We made it – that congregation and I. It was scary but we learned we weren’t so fragile that we would shatter if we heard or experienced something uncomfortable. It wouldn’t be the end of the world. We could take risks with each other. And eventually there were actually times when we almost forgot the shades of our skin. Great joy.
Then another time I was the pastor of an integrated church. We had a white member of that congregation, Steve (a pseudonym). He didn’t have a malicious bone in his body, but he would unconsciously say these uncomfortable, slightly racist things.
Something unprecedented happened in that congregation. I don’t know what caused it. Two of the African-American men in the church took Steve to lunch and gently talked to him. After lunch he came to my office agitated. He was upset and sort of angry and sort of embarrassed and feeling very, very defensive. After he’d talked for a while, this is what I told him. I said, “Steve, you have just been paid one of the biggest compliments I know.” I told him that it is very rare for African-Americans in our society to tell we who are white when we are doing something that feels racist to them. It is a dreadfully difficult thing to talk about, and we white people almost always become defensive and angry. We rarely listen. It usually isn’t worth it.
“Those guys must really care about you,” I told Steve. “They must really, really believe in you.”
The rules were changing for Steve and he had to choose between fear and joy. It was a resurrection for Steve.
rules are changing in
Be very clear – I am not talking about who we vote for, that’s not the point. I am talking about how we listen to each other in this situation of fear and joy.
When I was pastoring the African-American congregation, I developed a new spiritual practice. If anyone took the risk of suggesting to me that something I said or did had within it any tinge of racism, I adopted the practice that I would not react, I would not allow myself to become defensive, I would not try to justify myself. I would ask questions to make sure I understood and I would think about it for 24 hours. After 24 hours I might decide that what the person had said was wrong, but if an African-American was willing to take the enormous risk of pointing out something they saw in me, I was going to give it serious consideration.
I have since tried to apply this same principle to gender, sexual orientation and the differently-abled. I don’t always pull it off, but I try. I may decide after 24 hours that you are wrong, but I want to always try to consider it carefully.
the Jeremiah Wright sound bites appeared this week, I wish white Americans
could have said, “Tell us more, Dr. Wright. Explain to us what you are trying
to tell us. Let’s see the videos of the entire sermon. We want to understand
your perspective. We are going to try to not be defensive. We may end up
disagreeing with you, but we are going to take some time to try to understand
what you have to say.” What a wonderful thing that would have been for white
instead we became afraid. We can choose between fear and great joy, because
But I say this only as an illustration of a larger truth.
When the rules change, we get scared. If the crucified don’t stay crucified, what rules can we trust? That’s why Mary and Mary were afraid. But mixed up with the fear is joy, liberation and new life.
The scariest thing we do in life is to rise from the tombs of our own internalized oppression and sense of inferiority and alienation.
But mixed with the fear is great joy. The joy of resurrection. Joy. Joy. Joy.
The joy is always under the places where there is the greatest fear.
What a joy it must have been for Mary and Mary, women in a patriarchal world, to be able to go to the male disciples and say, “Oh boys, guess who Jesus has chosen to be the witnesses of his resurrection?” Joy. Joy. Joy.
What a joy it is when you realize you don’t have to be in charge anymore just because of your gender. What a joy it is when you come out of the closet. What a joy it is when you look in the mirror and see that black really is remarkably attractive. What a joy when you power your wheel chair through the front door. What a joy when you discover that, with the help of God and friends, you can stay sober. What a joy when you stop being married to the man who abuses you. What a joy when you see your grandchildren playing with their friends, and they are every shade of humanity. What a joy when you speak your God-given truth. What a joy when you stop believing you’re stupid and enroll in graduate school. Joy. Joy. Joy.
We don’t have to stay crucified. Joy. Joy. Joy. Fear first, and then great joy.
Jane got me an iPod for Christmas. I think she has come to regret it.
My sister-in-law got me a gift certificate at iTunes for Christmas, so I have bought some music…some hymns, some Bob Marley, which are like hymns. I have also bought some songs, usually in the middle of the night on nights when I can’t sleep, that the next day, I’ve said, “What was I thinking?”
the beginning of Lent this year, just after we got back from
So all this Lent the words have gotten stuck in my head, and all Lent I’ve been hearing them in my head:
They tried to make me go to rehab, I say-ed, "No,
What a strange song to get stuck in my head during Lent, I thought. But then it occurred to me. What is Lent, but a 40-day rehab?
Lent is about giving up more than chocolate. It is about giving up our tombs…our racial cocoons, our gender stereotypes, our self-sufficiency, our closets, our subservience, our anger, our addictions, our insecurities.
Fear and joy are also bondage and freedom. We choose between bondage and freedom.
It is frightening to come out of our tombs, naked and defenseless. Resurrection fear. But mixed with the fear is great joy. Resurrection joy. Joy. Joy. Joy.