Sermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, for the Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications
“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.”
Nearly a decade ago, yours truly was a flag football coach. The Bobby Bonds Bulldogs in Riverside, California—the best-coached group of kindergartners in the country. One week we were scheduled to play a team of four- to five-year-olds that appeared anything but. They were the oldest group of kindergarteners I had ever seen. A few had earrings. I swear a couple had tattoos. I think one even had a mustache.
On the way to the game, my son Elijah articulated what I suspected. “Daddy, I’m afraid of those boys.” So as we drove to the park, I tried to corroborate his feelings while allaying his fears.
“I understand, Son. You have butterflies in your stomach. You're nervous. I was always nervous before big games. It means you care. But that doesn’t mean you are afraid. You’ve practiced. Trust the process. As soon as the whistle blows, you and your team will do what you’ve been taught. Your nervousness will dissipate. And you’ll win the game.”
When we arrived at the park and concluded warmups, I brought the team together with my hyped-up call and response.
“Are they better than us?”
The kids shouted, “No!”
“Did they practice more than us?”
“Are they more prepared than us?”
“Do you have anything to fear?”
The kids yelled, “No!”
But then Elijah raised his hand and interjected, “But, Daddy. We are a little nervous!”
This story came to mind this week while reviewing the Easter gospel lesson. Like my son, there are times in life when we have to acknowledge that our fears are founded. There are times in life when feelings of angst are appropriate.
Too many of us were conditioned to believe that fear is a sign of failure. To be afraid is to be without faith. We equate anxiety with inadequacy, cold feet with incompetence. But today’s gospel lesson demonstrates the folly of this sort of simplistic thinking.
We witness Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’s closest disciples, preparing to anoint the body of Jesus. These women wanted to provide one final act of service, to the one who had served them. They tried to deliver one final act of dignity, to the one who dignified them. These women had much to fear. They were grieving. These women witnessed their beloved murdered in cold blood by the state. They saw their Jesus suffer through the cold and cruel punishment of crucifixion.
We must understand that the act of crucifixion was reserved for those considered a threat to Roman imperial power. This abhorrent and atrocious act targeted those deemed deviant. The Bible says that they crucified Jesus alongside two bandits. In contemporary parlance, the label bandit connotes thievery and criminality. But in first century Palestine, Romans used the term bandit to describe Jews who they labeled as insurrectionists; those who threatened an unjust status quo; those who challenged the idea that the sun would always rise and set on the Roman Empire.
This is why the Romans used crucifixion as an act of terror—a message to all other imperial subjects to stay in your place. The aim was to instill fear. Don’t get out of line. Don’t get uppity. Stay in your place at the bottom of the social pecking order. Or else you, too, might end up nailed to a cross. Roman trees bore strange fruit. These women had good reason to be afraid.
I suppose this explains why the other disciples dispersed and disappeared. The men went into hiding. The disciple Peter even denied Jesus three times. “Weren’t you a follower of Jesus? Didn’t we see you singing Hosanna last week?”
“No,” Peter said. “It wasn’t me.”
Yet these two women—fueled by their faith and catalyzed by their conviction—remained. They remained to bear witness. They had a calling to fulfill. They wanted to extend one final act of mercy to the one who was so merciful; one last gift of grace to the one who was so gracious; one final act of love to the one who was so loving. Were they afraid? I am sure. Did they have their doubts? Of course. Who would roll the stone away? But they showed up anyway.
There is a profound lesson for us to learn from these women. How many of us have heard the voice of God’s call? How many of us know that a charge to keep we have, a God to glorify? How many know you have a responsibility to assume—a task to undertake? Despite this, we allow fear, anxiety, and doubt to have the final say.
Who will roll the stone away? We focus on the question rather than the call. Who will roll the stone away? We focus on the impediment rather than the possibility. Who will roll the stone away? We focus on the obstacle rather than the opportunity.
Easter is a perennial reminder that the fear of crucifixion Friday should not have the last word. Think of every movement of positive change in this nation. It was always a result of those who decided to act on the power of their conviction despite their justified fears.
Consider Martin Luther King, Jr. Fifty years ago this week, an assassin’s bullet went through his jaw and severed his spine. We know that he lived under the depressing storm clouds of fear an doubt. There were some days that King could not even pull himself out of bed. I’m sure he was scared. I’m sure Martin wanted to live beyond thirty-nine years of age. I’m sure he was afraid to leave behind a wife and four children without a father. We know that he feared that the stones of injustice that entomb this nation would be too heavy to roll away. Yet he never quit. His faith in what was possible outpaced his fear of the impractical.
Consider the current #metoo movement. Women at all levels of society have much too fear. We live in a society where for generations we have conditioned women to believe they are expendable—mere sexual cogs in the machines of masculinist pleasure. Women in the workplace have much to fear—fear of losing opportunities, fear of losing livelihoods, fear of being denigrated and disparaged. If this is true for women in Hollywood, Washington, and Wall Street, just imagine what it's like for poor and working-class women. Despite this fear, women everywhere have found the courage to say enough is enough. If we bring our voices together, we will have the power to roll the stones of patriarchy that have for too long blocked the path of equality and dignity.
Or consider students from Ferguson, Missouri to Lakeland, Florida. The NRA may appear all powerful. Lawmakers may seem incorrigible. And the prison industrial complex often looks intractable. These kids have much to fear. The media frames some as thugs and others as idealists. Unscrupulous pundits demonize adolescents and crucify the character of these kids. But look at how these young people continue to show up; they continue to speak out, and refuse to be intimidated by the massive stones resting before them. Who shall roll these stones away? According to these young people, the confidence of their convictions.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene had their fears. Roman soldiers might execute them. The stone might prove too cumbersome. They might be mocked and maligned. Despite their anxiety, however, they had their ideals. Despite their fear, they also had faith. Thus, when they showed up to do the improbable, they discovered the impossible—Jesus had risen!
This is the message of Easter. It is okay to be afraid. It is okay to have doubts. Fear and uncertainty are not the opposite of faith. To the contrary, doubt is a precondition of faith. If faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not yet seen, then faith does not grow out of the soil of empirically-based verification. Our faith grows from the seeds of the improbable and hope of the implausible.
So the opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is either our optimistic or our cynical certainty. In the words of Søren Kierkegaard, “he who always hopes for the best becomes old—deceived by life. He who always prepares for the worst becomes old prematurely. But he who has faith retains eternal youth.”1
Faith led these women to the tomb. They showed up to do the improbable and discovered the impossible—God rose Jesus from the dead. The angel commands them to tell the other disciples. The Bible says the women fled from the tomb. They didn’t say a word, according to verse 8, because they were afraid. Nevertheless, what did they do? They kept walking.
I can imagine what they were thinking. “Who is going to believe us? The disciples are going to think we have lost our minds.” They kept on walking. “We are just two women; the men are not going to believe us.” They kept on walking.
If there is anyone here who has been seized by fear; if there is anyone here who has been paralyzed by trepidation; or anxiety-ridden regarding the opinions of others; remember the message of Easter. God specializes in the unthinkable. If we endure persecution for the cause of right and are willing to suffer in the service of others, we can have confidence that God specializes in the unthinkable and can do the inconceivable. Keep on walking!
When I think about these women walking—faithful but afraid—I am reminded of a story my grandparents have framed on their wall. It tells of a man walking along the beach with God. The man sees several scenes from his life. In each scene, he sees two sets of footprints. One belongs to him. The other belongs to God. But he noticed a pattern. Whenever he was at his lowest and whenever he was most afraid and troubled, he only saw one set of footprints. So the man asked the Lord. “Lord, you said you would never leave me nor forsake me. You said that you would be a friend that would stick closer than a brother. So why is that during the scariest times of my life, I only see one set of footprints? Why would you leave me alone when I was at rock bottom?”
God replied, “Why do you think that I would leave you? Look closely at those footprints in the sand. They don’t belong to you. They belong to me. For whenever you were afraid, and during your worst trials and tribulations, it was then that I carried you.”
This is the message of Easter. Despite the horror of Crucifixion Friday, God will pick us up on Sunday morning. Show up for the improbable, and watch God do the impossible. It’s Easter!
1 Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, Penguin Classics Reprint Edition, 1986, 52