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Fear and Joy Empower Out Witness

A sermon on Matthew 28:1-10.

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Sammie Chaffin on].

Last month I gathered with clergy from all around the Synod for a ministerium day that focused on the preaching texts for the Easter season.

The speaker for the day, Dr. Eric Barreto, offered us a wealth of insights, but he also assigned us “homework” during the breaks (as the good Princeton Seminary professor that he is).

One of these assignments was to write a 6-word sermon for Easter Sunday.

Six words.

He had just spent a good 30 or 40 minutes diving into the nuances and themes of this day’s texts, but he wanted us to boil it down to 6 words!

Well, being the good Princeton Seminary graduate that I am, I couldn’t just NOT DO an assignment. So, I took up the challenge…

and Howard will both be shocked and incredibly proud of me that I did it. I have a 6-word sermon that encapsulates my message for today! You want to hear it?

Fear and joy empower our witness.

When I told Ben & Robert about this assignment, they semi-dared me to deliver my 6 words and then just sit down…

But, since you all didn’t get Dr. Barreto’s lecture I’m thinking it might require a little more explanation. (I will still try to keep it brief Howard).

The first three words of my mini-sermon come directly from our gospel reading.

Don’t feel bad if you didn’t immediately recognize that, it’s understandable.

These words come after the big action of the scene… with the earthquake and the shining-lightening angel descending from heaven, rolling away the gravestone, terrifying the guards into fainting, and announcing the resurrection of Jesus with a commission to go and tell the other disciples.

Those are the details that tend to make an impression in this story, because they are so dramatic – so far outside the realm of anything any of us have probably ever experienced.

But that’s exactly why those aren’t what I want to preach about… they feel so far removed from anything that could take purchase in our lives.

The reaction of the women, on the other hand… that feels relatable. That I can understand: Fear and Joy.

Now, I might still get a bit of push back because those two emotions are not generally seen as belonging together.

But, you know, Lutherans love a good paradox, so just go with me here.

We all know what both fear and what joy feel like – these are common human emotions.

We experience fear when we are afraid of losing something we value, or when past experience has taught us to expect pain in a given circumstance, or even when we encounter something new that unsettles us or threatens to disrupt our worldview.

And, I hope we all experience joy at least as frequently… when our attention is captured by the beauty of Creation, or when we accomplish something we have worked hard to achieve, or when we are reminded that we are deeply loved.

So, can we also experience fear and joy together?

Yes! In fact, I think often our most intense joy necessarily carries with it an edge of fear, because joy makes us vulnerable.

I knew that the first time I held my child in my arms. I was flooded with the intense joy of bottomless love for this little creature I had helped to bring into the world…

AND I was overwhelmed with the weight of responsibility to care for, and teach, and protect another human life in this unpredictable and dangerous world over which I have very little control.

Fear and joy – together – might actually be more consistent with human experience than either one in complete isolation.

Together they reflect the complicate reality of living in a world that is both beautiful and brutal.

This is true for us as much as it is true for the women who left the tomb, both reeling and rejoicing.

The circumstances of our lives – including on this Easter Sunday – call for both fear and joy, because there is much for which to rejoice AND there is much that uncertain.

So, what about the second half of my 6-word sermon? What’s this about fear and joy leading to witness?

(Content warning: my answer to that question might trigger a bit of the fear reaction for anyone steeped in the Lutheran tradition, because…)

Witnessing is clearly the point of the Easter story.

It’s not the only point. Rejoicing at Jesus’ resurrection and the defeat of the power of death is absolutely a vital part of the story…

But we aren’t just supposed to hear that news and then be happy, in our little Easter bubble. We are supposed to talk about it… like to other people… who aren’t already here at church with us.

We are supposed to talk about it so much that all seven weeks of the Easter season will feature readings and stories that call us to be Christ’s witnesses in the world.

And I know that prospect can make us uncomfortable, because we have so much cultural baggage around pushy, judgmental, Bible-thumping brands of evangelism that any mention of talking about our faith makes us cringe back, sure that NOONE would ever want to hear anything we have to say the minute the words God, or faith, or church come out of our mouths.

And… fair enough! I’m a pastor, and I instinctively shrink back if someone asks me if they can “talk to me about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” because I know they want to try to force a particular, narrow theology on me that I have found harmful and inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus.

But if we separate that particular evangelical sub-culture from the idea of witness, what we are really talking about when we use the word witness is just sharing the story of what we have seen, so that others can see for themselves.

Both the angel and Jesus in today’s gospel tell the first witnesses of the resurrection to go tell the other disciples what has happened, and then to tell them to go to Galilee where they will see Jesus.

The women don’t need to explain the science or the theology of the resurrection.

They don’t have to convince their brethren to sign-on to a set of precepts.

They just have to say what they have seen and heard, and then encourage their friends to gather their own evidence.

Which means, when we “witness” all we have to do is to say what we have seen and heard, and then encourage our friends to gather their own evidence.

We just have to ask ourselves, “what HAVE I seen in my own life, as a result of Jesus’ resurrection?”

How has my life, my perspective, or my actions been changed by the story of Jesus?

How does participating in this faith community fulfill me, or guide me, or add meaning to my life?

What about God’s presence in my life makes me WANT to hear the story of the resurrection again and think about its relevance for my life?

Once we have our answers to those questions, we know what our witness is. That’s what we have seen. All we need to do is share it with others and encourage them to see for themselves if they find the same thing.

And here’s the thing about how BOTH fear and joy empower our witness.

Our answers to those questions don’t have to be about how our lives are all shiny and perfect since we found Jesus… because that’s not real! And that’s not what faith is about.

Our life can be changed in joy-giving ways AND in challenging ways – by calling us to examine our assumptions and our commitments more carefully, and pushing ourselves to see people and needs we could easily ignore.

Being part of a faith community can give us a sense of belonging AND it can train us in the uncomfortable work of confessing our failings and getting honest about the things that scare us.

We can long to hear the story of the resurrection again and again because our faith helps us to acknowledge the ways that death can take hold in our lives again and again, despite our best efforts.

Our story can be a story of fear and joy together.

Because acknowledging our fears and own vulnerabilities and our failures is the way that healing happens, when we stop pretending that everything is fine.

And the joy of resurrection is a joy that comes out of admitting our needs and discovering that we don’t have to meet them all on our own.

Fear and Joy – together – empower our witness.

Thanks be to God.


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