Do Not Be Afraid?

Mieke Vandersall
Not So Churchy
April 20, 2015
Matthew 28:1-10

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the God, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead,” and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers and sisters to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

There had to have been such confusion in Cusco, Peru—that afternoon of May 31, 1650. It was a great equalizing moment, when the earthquake hit that day. Earthquakes, or lightning strikes, or angels for that matter, they don’t choose who they effect based upon economic class or ethnic origin. And on that day, May 31, 1650, in the afternoon, houses and churches were eaten whole from the rumbling earth. And the native people and their lords, the slaves and the people of mixed race, they came together, in the midst of this earthquake, and the only thing they found left in their church was this picture of Jesus. So they held it high in the sky and they gave adoration and they asked from protection, and then, the earthquakes began to subside. They saved themselves with this image of Jesus, they thought. And so then they called it the Señor de los Temblores, the Lord of the Earthquakes. All the people came together to call it this and to worship this Jesus who saved them from destruction.

It is no mystery, then, why this image of Jesus is the patron saint of Cusco, and this skirt-wearing Jesus can be found in any and all churches in the vicinity. It is no mystery that this great equalizing Jesus, who protects the people from the thing that they have absolutely no control over—devastating earthquakes that continue to threaten the region—is the Jesus who makes his way in a parade throughout the streets of Cusco every Holy Week through today.

Jesus, before our reading tonight, he had been arrested by the authorities who did not appreciate his socialist underpinnings, his equalizing tendencies, his desire to take back his religious roots for the freedom and liberation they offered. They didn’t appreciate this Jesus one bit who rode into town in a protest march on a scraggly donkey covered with the cloaks of the poor—while the Emperor and his men were riding into town through another entrance on horses adorned with jewels—as far away from the poor as they could get. And so after he came into the center of power on his donkey, enough was enough and he was arrested, and his friends just couldn’t find the guts to claim him as one of their own, and so he was killed in the most humiliating and inhumane way possible for their day. The women, though, they stayed by his side, through his burial and after. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (what other Mary? This always confuses me who this other Mary is), went to the tomb to be with Jesus after he was buried and this is where we enter the story tonight.

This is indeed the story of the festival we call Easter, the word for which is derived from the name of a Germanic goddess Eostre, goddess of fertility and spring, whose feast day was celebrated with the Spring Equinox. This is the story of Easter, the miracle that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary found a tomb they knew their Jesus had been laid in, empty. This is the story of the miracle of flowers budding after never, ever thinking we would see them again. This is the story of the miracle of being told not to be afraid in the midst of terror, and believing it.

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to see the tomb and not only is the tomb empty but there was a great earthquake, a rumble, a temblor, for an angel of God, came from heaven and rolled back the stone and sat on it. They had no Señor de los Temblores to hold to the sky to fend off the tremors, or the lightening they experienced either.  

Can’t you feel the fear in this scene? The confusion, the upside down, topsy-turvy nature of the events in play. That is why I find it so counterintuitive, so confusing, why in one commentary I read for tonight it says that [the author] “takes pains to make the scene as normal as possible.” Really? Normal? This shit is terrifying! Earthquakes and lightening strikes and angels who sit on top of graves and speak like it is normal for them to be hanging out with the women. Not normal. We are the ones who have made it normal somehow through our annual ritual of Easter lilies and trumpets. There is nothing normal about this.

The angel, it told Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to not be afraid. It knew who the women were looking for and it wanted the women to go and quickly tell the disciples that Jesus had been raised from the dead. So, even though they weren’t supposed to be afraid, they left “with fear…and great joy” and ran to tell the disciples. Jesus met them on the way and greeted them with a greeting as basic as “Greetings!” and understandably out of their confusion, they took hold of his feet—for who was to know when or if they would ever see him again? And then he said that same thing that the angels said: Do Not Be Afraid.” And after that, as the angel said: go and tell.  

There is so much to be afraid of in this world, and we all know what it is we are most afraid of. My list is long. One way that we try and get our fears out of us here at Not So Churchy is to write on our symbol and put on our prayer tree what we are need to let go of so we can be present. I bet you anything that if I were to read the prayers on those symbols, the majority of them are fears. Around our employment, and our loneliness, our futures and our decisions. In the world we live in where the only thing permanent is change itself, we have much to be fearful of, and the fears feel as great as earthquakes or striking lightening.  

And yet, don’t be afraid. In the rough translation to English this sounds like a command: Hey you, stupid one who is afraid who can’t be zen enough and relax into the world around you, stop it! Don’t be afraid! Instead, this should be translated with a great deal more compassion. It is more of a comforting assurance, sweet whispers in our ears, reassuring that we can indeed take on whatever challenge is ahead of us, that we might gain some perspective from this angel who has such a disruptive presence to shock us into realizing that the scariest things we are facing at times are the very things that give us the chance for rebirth, that we might gain perspective from Jesus who had so much to fear and yet lived all the way through it. We are given this assurance from an authority who speaks with power beyond this world.

I am not saying it is ridiculous that we are afraid. Far from it. There is every reason in the world to be. But I see the reoccurring fear as a hump we must spend time with, we must know, we must befriend, that tells us so much about who we think we are, who we think others are and the ways we are prodded to make a difference in this fear-filled world.

I am clearly struggling with this fear thing, because I can be afraid of so much. I also know what it is like to live with glimmers lacking fear and how when that hump is removed from my view, how I get excited to go and tell others that fear is actually not where it is at, but that in this thing we experience every day called death, then the miracle of new life forces its way through the ground.

If I have learned nothing else, it is that life in the non profit and church worlds is filled with and driven by fear. Fear of the budget, fear of donors, fear of not growing enough, fear of rejection by people and funders. It can suck the life out of you.

Maybe that is why when I brought up our budget to the leadership team for the very first time, all the excitement in the room was sucked out within nanoseconds. Polly so lovingly said: I just have to say that I hate this conversation. Tracy basically said: Thanks Polly for saying that, because I have this conversation all damn day and I hate it too. I don’t want to have to deal with this here. Someone else said that if we do a pledge drive we didn’t want it to be like pledge drives in church we had experienced in the past—but we couldn’t put our finger on how we wanted to do it differently. We continued around the room like this. I agreed with them. We then joked that it would just be John’s job to raise our budget.

We put our fears out there. Oh, yes we did. We then talked about the upshot of all this business of knowing what it costs to run Not So Churchy and facing our reality: we are being asked to grow and deepen our commitment without being in a crises position. We aren’t getting kicked out of this space. Parity, the organization that we are a program area of, is deeply committed to our growth and our stability. We have a core group that is deeply committed to the flourishing of this community. We are wildly gifted with amazing people. We are wildly gifted with all the skills we need to thrive. If we did nothing with this reality of our budget, we would be just fine.

And then we actually began to get a little excited about it. That is what happens when we speak our fears and push against them a bit. This is a community that we have built together and there is something empowering about knowing the reality and working together as a community to achieve a goal. We actually like each other. We believe in each other’s leadership. All of us need each other. We want to give to this place to take ownership. It feels really, really good. And you know what, there are so many people outside of these walls that need us as well and need to feel that ownership.

The other command that both the angel and Jesus give is to “go and tell.” They are to go and tell the disciples. I am not sure if they are to whisper the assurance in fear-filled ears that they don’t need to be afraid, or that they found Jesus alive again, but they are moved to somehow tell.

Not to draw too close a line between the reading and this evening, but when we know we have a gift, in this case tonight, a Jesus who confronts all our fears in an otherworldly way by whispering that we don’t need to fear, a Jesus who cannot be held down by death by government officials, the betrayal of friends, a Jesus who bridges that of this world and of another world divide and encourages us all to step in it with him, we need to tell.

We have a gift in this very community, that needs support and needs telling. For others need it too. And it is us up to us to tell about it, for whom else will?

This is the model of God we have tonight. One who defies all expectations and asks us to do the same, and then tell everyone that they can too. It is a movement.

It is a movement where this image, the Señor de los Temblores, the Lord of the Earthquakes, is shaken in the air to ward off them off and to ward off our fear. This very Jesus lived through it and the earthquakes that might shock us back into perspective will not consume us whole. They will not and they cannot. For this God in the person of Jesus who pushes through the earth will not permit it.