Year A, The Great Vigil of Easter
April 19, 2014
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Do not be afraid.”
Happy Easter everyone! We made it to the resurrection, again. It is grand moment in our year. It is good to be here with you. It has been a lovely, subtle Holy Season together. Thanks to the many, many members of this community that work so very hard to put this all together. Thank you.
The story of Jesus’ birth as told by St. Luke starts the very same way that St. Matthew’s gospel ends, that is with the words “Do not be afraid.” That is what the Angel tells Mary in the Annunciation, and that is what the Angel tells Mary Magdalene and the other Mary at the tomb. Both evangelists relate that these words were spoken with authority, with the Divine authority of Angels, messengers of God, and in our story tonight, spoken also with direct divine authority of the Risen Lord, of God in God’s self, Jesus Christ to those ultimately faithful, ubiquitously present women at that empty tomb. Faith and presence have always very difficult to tell apart.
This most Holy of nights in the most Holy of seasons points us, shepherds us, carries us, pushes us, drags us towards what end? What is this all about? This season; maybe even this religion, what are all of these stories about, what are they leading too? Salvation. Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, right? That is the Divine trajectory that the cycle of the seasons leads us through year after year, from the preparations of Advent; through the Incarnation of Emmanuel, of God with us; the revelation of His presence in Epiphany; the slow march towards Jerusalem in Lent; to the spiraling, humiliating defeat and scattering of Thursday, Friday and today through which it is revealed, subversively, to be a great cosmic, foundational, ontological victory over the powers of empire, of domination and violence and victory over apathy, sin, over death itself. That has been the trajectory of our spiritual journey over these past five months.
We heard the story tonight, a schematic of the history of our salvation. From, “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the Earth;” to Pharaoh advancing on Israel as they fled bondage in Egypt; to the great and mysterious wisdom spoken from the exile, that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, that God’s ways, the way things are supposed to be, the way God desires the world to be are not always, even often in line with our desires; to the power of prophecy, the power of truth, the power of the Word of God in the vision of a valley of dry bones; to these 10 verses at the end of St. Matthew’s Gospel. The resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, our salvation is announced with the words, “Do not be afraid.” This is our salvation history. It is a grand history, and the lesson, even if we had read all 9 readings appointed for this vigil (maybe next year), even if we had read all nine, the message would be the same… “Do not be afraid.”
We have walked this journey, remembered it, participated in anamnesis in the Triduum these past three days. What a journey it has been! In these stories, we have been given every possible reason to be afraid. Our leader, Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth, preaching a message of an intimate, loving God, of friendship and obedience to the way of God, of non-violence, was betrayed by one of us, arrested in the dark of night, bound, beaten, thrown at the feet of the Imperial governor, flogged so mercilessly that he didn’t even have the strength to carry his own cross to the top of Golgotha and then a grisly death, the kind of death you don’t tell kids the details of. We have had every reason possible for being afraid, afraid like you would be if you lived in Gaza City today, or Helmand Province, or Juba, South Sudan, or anywhere in Iraq since we invaded. If you or I were one of the twelve, making our way north back to Galilee, we would not know if the Romans were searching for us, were ransacking our parent’s homes as they sought to rather ordinarily rendition us back to the feet of Pilate and out own crosses; if we were one of the women going to sit in vigil at the tomb, we’d have every reason to be afraid. I can’t imagine anything scarier. But, our story doesn’t end here. Our story does not end in this very real scattering and humiliation, in the actual defeat and death Christ and his friends experienced; it begins here, with resurrection, and it begins with the word, “Do not be afraid.” And it is in those very words that we find our actual and eternal salvation.
The Resurrection of Our Lord and Savior is the final reconciliation of Sin. It is the final defeat of the powers of the enemy. It is about the vindication for all times of Christ the Lamb sacrificed on the hard wooden altar of Empire. It is a decisive revelation of the love of God. It is about the defeat of the death itself. Most pressingly it is about the arrival of the Kingdom. About this, I have no doubt. It is all of those things and the countless other thoughts, feelings, experiences and doctrines of atonement and sacrifice and salvation that have carried the faithful faithfully over the past two thousand years. The operative words, though, no matter where you land or stand theologically, no matter what doctrine you or your people ascribe to, come back to that simple statement spoken with the authority of angels and God in God’s risen self: “Do not be afraid.”
Death? Do not be afraid. That doesn’t mean that you will avoid death. You won’t. I won’t; none of us will. We’ll all die, and in not very long in the scheme of things, yet, there is nothing to be afraid of. Stand up against the forces of evil? You want to get a tunafish sandwich at Woolworth’s like everyone else, but you happen to be African-American in 1960 Greensboro, North Carolina? Don’t be afraid. They weren’t and it sparked righteous change in our world. Worried that leaving that well-paid job to do what God really means for you to be doing with your life? Do not be afraid. Worried that you might not have enough to be as generous as you know you should be? Do not be afraid. You want to stand up to that man who hits you; your mother who neglected you; the city that won’t let you sleep outside of the shadows; the corporation that is mining our soil, polluting the genome, pumping tar sands oil across our heartland; the husband or wife or partner that does not see you and love you for who you actually are? Do not be afraid. We have nothing to fear by fear itself; as I have said before, fear is the mind killer, that is the Gospel truth; in essence, this is our very real, very incarnate, very true salvation that we can live into and experience in our lives now, this instant, in this very moment. This is our salvation won once for many by the One on the Cross. Do not be afraid. This is the Kingdom of God made manifest in the heart and reality of each and every one who comes in the name of the Lord, unafraid. Amen.
Now, this is not an assurance that things won’ go wrong. They will. This is in no way a guarantee that things will turn out for the best, or even well; they rarely do. There is no telling what they’ll do to you when they get their hands on you. And, and, and equally true, more true in the cosmic, ontological sense, we need not be afraid because Jesus Christ has been there ahead of us, He is going ahead of us, like he is going ahead of the disciples to Galilee, He has gone ahead and will strengthen you, will prop you up, will hold your hand, will let you cry in his shoulder, will pick you up off the floor, be it of your kitchen or some forsaken dungeon, nowhere is outside of the saving embrace of our God. You are not, not ever, not for one iota of an instant ever alone. Nothing, nothing, nothing in the world is stronger, more powerful, more fearsome than the tenderness of the love of God in Christ. God’s love, for the whole creation, for God’s Holy Church, for you yourself is triumphant. Do not be afraid.
When we are fearless, we are victorious. No pit is too deep. No adversary too dangerous. No empire too evil or impenetrable. Not cross to high or too hard. No challenge insurmountable. No suffering too great to bear. No loss is devastating to us when we are unafraid; heart breaking, spirit rending, yes, of course, count on such things, count on sadness and regret and pain and suffering, Jesus does not promise or offer a rose garden; but in the company of our God as revealed in the resurrection, the strength, the courage, the companionship you need, be it to persevere, to survive, to resist, to go gently into that good night, whatever it is that you face, in the company of our God, our Lord and Savior we are offered a way, The Way, the Way of Jesus Christ, The Way that Jesus Christ blazed for us in His life, His journey to the cross, in His death and in His resurrection. This way, The Way is freely and grandly offered to you and to all who gather around tables like this across time and around the world; all you need to do to find that is to not be afraid. It is like Simone Weil says, it is not that we have to say yes to God, we just have to stop saying no. You don’t have to be brave, you just have to stop being afraid. This is our victory over empire, oppression, sin and even death itself. Resting in the resurrection, these things cease to scare us, and thus they cease to have power over us. This is our very real, very concrete, very present salvation, and it is offered to you and all who lean into Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior.
These are not my words. I cannot possibly speak with that kind of authority. These are the words of Our Savior. I am but a messenger, a broken and stuttering one at that, and I bring you this simple, humble Easter message: “Do not be afraid.” This is our salvation. AMEN