Fearsome with Christ

A sermon for the Easter Vigil, Saturday, April 7, 2012.  The lectionary readings for the Mass are Romans 6:3-11 , Psalm 114, and Mark 16:1-8.

With all the candles we’ve been lighting, with our journey this night and this season from darkness into light, I’ve been thinking about a contest that’s going on right now.  You may have read about what is called the Flame Challenge.  It’s a contest sponsored by the actor Alan Alda in an attempt to encourage scientists to explain “what a flame is” in language that can be understood by an 11-year-old.  In part, Alda’s interest in making science intelligible stems from when he was about 11 and he asked his science teacher to explain a flame, a simple flame such as one would see from a fire or a candle.  Whatever the teacher said, Alda was not impressed, and so ever since, he has done what he can to encourage clear talk about science.  For the Flame Challenge, 822 entries have been submitted, and now the entries are being judged in more than 130 schools by, (you guessed it) 11-year-olds.  It got me thinking about flames.

When I think of my earliest understanding of a flame, my earliest experience of fire, I would have to say that “flame” equaled danger.  Whether one prefers the word, flammable or inflammable, it’s going to burn you up, if you’re not careful.  Most of us learn at an early age that fire is dangerous and flames are not to be played with.  Don’t go near the fire.  Don’t put your finger near the candle.  Don’t let sparks pop out of a fireplace.  Fire is something to be feared. 

And yet, as we grow, fire is very soon our best friend, as fire cooks food on a grill in just the right way.  Fire warms and provides and comforts.  God uses fire to lead his beloved people through the wilderness, out of slavery, and into the land that is promised.  We’re told that the Holy Spirit speaks through tongues of flame, and with Jesus, the Spirit baptizes with fire. And tonight, don’t we follow in primeval footsteps as we give thanks for the hope and promise of New Fire?

Fear and flame are connected also in that we have ambiguous and changing relationships each.  If our own life involves conflicted feelings around fire, then “fear” brings its own complications.

In the early days of Lent, some of us gathered at church for a quiet day (a mini-retreat)  in which we thought and prayed about our relationship with fear—how fear can paralyze, but also how fear can motivate.  I shared with folks then, that though many will say that “faith is the opposite of fear,” I don’t believe that.  Instead, I think that an honest, healthy, faith that grows in the Spirit of Christ is full of fear.  But fear almost fertilizes the new life.

There’s a lot of fear in tonight’s Gospel.  Mary Magdalene and the other women are afraid they won’t be able to move the stone away from the entrance of the tomb where Jesus has been buried.  But then they see the stone already moved, and their fears change.  Stepping inside the cave-tomb, they see a young man—maybe an angel—and now they’re really scared. From him, they learn that Jesus is not there.  He has been raised and is going on ahead.  

The women stumble out of the tomb terrified, amazed, and fearful.  The scripture says that at first, “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  But then an amazing thing happens, Mary Magdalene finds the other disciples and becomes the very first Christian preacher as she tells them what she has seen.  The other disciples don’t believe her, (They think she’s been smelling too many Easter lilies, or maybe she’s gotten into the poppies) but she keeps on.  
What’s happened to her fear?  Was it replaced by faith?  I don’t think so.  I think her faith surrounded her fear, the faithful fear and fearful faith commingled, and the two become an even more powerful witness to the risen Christ.

Throughout scripture people are confronted with angels, messengers from God, and on occasion, God himself, and each time the first words are “Do not be afraid.”  “Fear not.”  And so, on one hand, it’s clear that we’re not supposed to be full of fear, eaten up by it, paralyzed by it, defined by it. 

But if we look carefully at these interactions with God, often the “fear not” comes in the midst of action already begun.  The person visited has not run away, is still afraid, and yet, is compelled to lean forward.  And so, on the other hand, it seems we’re not called to be completely without fear, either. 

What this means, I think, is that God calls us not to be fearful, nor to be fear-less, but to be a little of both, to be fearsome. 

Fearsomeness is the quality of being able to cause fear, to instill fear, but it also carries with it a slight sense of one’s still being afraid.

As a church, we’re called to be fearsome.  Even though so-called “organized religion” gets a lot of criticism, we can quietly and faithfully offer our experience.  In the face of corporate greed and economic amnesia, we can be speak out.  And if we aren’t heard at the ballot box, we can make the voice of faith heard at the cash register.  We can be fearsome, if we allow the Holy Spirit to ignite us.

As a parish, we’re called to be fearsome—to get more deeply involved in our community and city, to take on more creatively the issues that are on our front doorstep as well as on the other side of the world, and to try to be a parish that is truly for All Souls, even when the souls that present themselves may not be exactly like us.

As individuals, we’re called to be fearsome.  Granted, I don’t sit at your desk and I don’t work with your colleagues, have your boss, or deal with neighbors, coworkers, inlaws, or family.  But I know this:  Fear can be a means of avoidance, and if we avoid too much of life, we’ll miss the miracles.  

And so even when it’s dark out, we can go forward with the light of Christ.  The devils scatter, the doubters slink off into the shadows.  And even though we may be shaking in our “baptismal boots,” we go forward. 

We celebrate the Light of Christ, renewed and resurrected.  Jesus spoke the truth even when it made people uncomfortable.  His words did not sound good to everyone.  He was the Good Shepherd of the sheep, but he also carried a staff that could trip a wolf into taking the tumble of its life.  But Jesus also got afraid.  He got afraid when the religious authorities started closing in, in the Garden of Gethsemane, and also at the Cross, when he thought God had forsaken him.  

But Christ moves forward in spite of that fear, with that fear, using it to feed the flames of his love as he moves through death and hell, and rises again to new life.

It is a fearsome Christ who loves us. 
It is this Christ who calls us to be fearsome, as well. 

Alleluia. Christ is risen.  (The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia.)

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