Do Not Be Alarmed – March 31, 2018

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Sermon Preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Great Vigil of Easter
March 31, 2018

Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Psalm 8; Genesis 7:11-18, 8:12-19 Exodus 14:21; 15:1-6; Romans 6:3-11; Mark 16:1-8

Let us pray.
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

In the summer before seventh grade, I attended a small camp in the mountains of rural New Hampshire. I had found the camp on my own on the Internet and it was, in many ways, the camp of my dreams. I had never been the type of child who was easily enticed by games of flag football or long afternoons at the swimming hole, so this camp’s focus on music theory and choral singing was perfect for me. Moreover, the camp promised to teach me how to compose, and I had long harbored dreams of joining the illustrious list of distinguished musicians found in the back of the hymnal. I was convinced that this summer would be the best summer ever.

Yet when I arrived in Dublin, New Hampshire, an eight-hour drive from my home, I freaked. I had never been away from my family for more than a week or two at a time, and this was going to be a full five weeks—not just away from my family, but from my friends, from my home, from everything that I was accustomed to and all my comfortable routines. I had just received my first cell phone, but it was nothing like the smartphones we have now, and there wasn’t any reception up there anyway. My shared bedroom was stuffy and musty; I also had to share a bathroom, which meant I had practically no privacy; the people there were nice, but they were also weird. I spent the first few days crying. I would rush down to the pay phone to call my mom before breakfast, in the middle of the afternoon, and late at night. I couldn’t see any hope for the five weeks ahead of me. I didn’t know how I could get through it. It seemed like the end of the world.

New life can be scary. I ended up making good friends at that camp; those people I thought were weird actually turned out to be ok. I learned a lot of things about music, and I learned a lot of things about myself. In one summer, I grew up considerably; it was a coming of age season for me. But in those first few days, I couldn’t conceive of all the growth and change for the better that would eventually occur. All I could see was my old world falling apart.

When Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome arrived at the tomb at dawn and a young man told them that the body of Jesus was not there, they were not overwhelmed with joy; they did not dance with delight; they did not shout “Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed!” They were afraid.  Most scholars now believe that the Gospel of Mark originally ended with the final verse of the Gospel passage we heard only moments ago: “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.” In Mark’s telling, at least, the first witnesses to the resurrection did not feel happier or safer or more secure because of it. To the contrary, they became seized with terror; they fled.

And really, who could blame them? Their world had been turned upside down. It might even have seemed like their world had ended—if not on the cross, then at the tomb when Jesus’ body was not there. Sure, Jesus had promised to rise from the dead, but they might not have known what to make of that promise. They might not have known exactly what he was talking about, and, to the extent that they did, they may have seen his promise as unreasonable or unlikely. They may have forgotten it altogether—categorized it as one of those many unreasonable promises he made that they loved him for but that they knew he could not fulfill. The dead were supposed to remain dead—for the most part, they always did—and being able to anoint the body of their friend and teacher was one of the few comforts these women had to rely on as they grieved the untimely loss of a person who had been so central to their lives.

Though it saves us in the end, new life rarely offers us something beneficial in the immediate term. First, it challenges our preconceptions, reordering the world we thought we knew, and only after our world has been turned upside down does it gradually reveal something more joyful, more beautiful, and more glorious. When God first creates the universe, the Spirit hovers over a dark and formless chaos for an unspecified period of time before God slowly begins creating a new world, being by being, step by step. Noah cannot leave the ark for a dry new land until he builds that ark, enters it with his family and a whole zoo of animals, suffers through a forty day-long flood, and waits for the flood to recede completely. And the Israelites cannot experience deliverance from the Egyptians until they witness a series of dramatic plagues happening right in front of their eyes and then make the bold but curious choice to escape from their powerful captor and walk through a sea. Embracing new life requires detaching ourselves from the familiar, wading through a murky and strange unknown, imaging a different, uncommon way, and surrendering our fear.

On a recent episode of the American Public Media show Marketplace, former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner reflected on how and his colleagues confronted the economic crisis of 2008. The host of Marketplace, Kai Ryssdal, noted that in Geithner’s book he described himself as being at war. “If you were at war,” Ryssdal asked, “who was the enemy?” The enemy, Geithner explained, was “fear…the loss of confidence…the sense of no bottom, no foundation…the enemy was the perception that the safest thing you could do…is to rush, rush, for the exits to protect yourself against the harm to come.” That collective fear, he continued, “[is] maybe rational individually, but the way panics work is the collective damage that rational behavior causes [can become] a deep existential threat to the country. And so the scary thing is to figure out how you break that spiral…how you convince people that we can put a floor under things—it won’t erode beneath them—we can pull the thing back from the abyss, so they can get back to the business of trying to make their business work and hire people”—or, we might say, so they can get back to the business of living.

Fear is at times the most rational emotion to feel. It was rational for Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome; it was rational for Moses; it would have been rational for Noah. But, as Geithner reveals, our fear of something often can cause far more trouble than thing we are afraid of. It is fear that paralyzes us, that hold us back, that prevents us from moving forward. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” To trust in the resurrection of Jesus is to learn to conquer our fear just enough to keep on going anyway and reach the new life that awaits us at the end of our struggle.

One of my favorite passages in all of literature is this one, from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet: “We have no reason to harbor any mistrust against our world, for it is not against us. If it has terrors, they are our terrors; if it has abysses, these abysses belong to us; if there are dangers, we must try to love them. And if only we arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us as the most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience. How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses? Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”

The young man 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. 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.”

Do not be alarmed. Happy Easter!

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