With Fear and Great Joy

“With Fear and Great Joy”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
April 9, 2023

Psalm 118:19, 21-24
I shall not die, but I shall live,
and recount the deeds of the Lord.
I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvellous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.

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 Lord, 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 to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’

– – –

In this morning’s scripture, the two Marys, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” – who wants to go down in history as “the other Mary”?! – possibly Jesus’ mother, possibly Mary of Clopas; both, in any case, his disciples – arrive in the garden and are confronted with the supremely disorienting experience of the earth moving under their feet, plus a supernatural being of blinding brilliance sitting atop the tomb that had held the body of their beloved friend and rabbi, a tomb which, they now learn, is empty. It’s barely a few moments past dawn and their day has already been supremely disrupted in both a seismic and a cosmic sense. No wonder the angel’s first words to them are “Do not be afraid.” 

We typically depict angels as inoffensive winged people perched sweetly atop our Christmas trees, but the angel in question was terrifying enough to make the hardened security guards go into a dead faint. Maybe it was one of the “biblically accurate angels” so many folks crocheted this past year, with multiple wings and a surfeit of fluorescently bright eyes. Either way, with clothing like lightning and the ability to cause earthquakes and roll giant rocks around, the angel must have been utterly frightening, and the women pretty stout-hearted to maintain their composure.

But the women must also have been deeply shaken; the text says “they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy” to go tell the other disciples the good news. 

Isn’t that interesting, that they’ve just learned that the worst possible outcome, the brutal torture and murder of their beloved lord and friend, has been reversed, that he is no longer dead – and yet, they’re still afraid?

I was telling this story to my  daughter, Davie (whose permission I have to share this story), this week and I asked her what kind of situation would make her feel afraid but still full of joy. We talked about rollercoasters, and starting a new summer camp where you’re pretty sure you’ll have tons of fun but you don’t know anyone yet, and watching a movie you’re so excited to see but you’re not sure how scary it will be, and singing your first solo in church.

While fear mixed with joy seems like an odd pairing, kids intuitively understand that this paradox is a common feature of human life. You get your dream new job but are afraid you’ll be found out as unqualified, or you get married or have a child or become a godparent but worry you’ll do a terrible job, or you finally take the plunge to do the thing you’re passionate about but fret that you’ll be an utter failure.

There’s also the kind of fear-and-joy mix the two Marys experience – one born not out of exploring untested waters, but of its opposite: the revisiting of something that has already caused you pain. This fear comes from the recognition that the good news we’ve received might not be real or might not last, that the hurts and losses we’ve sustained could very well happen again. I imagine that that is how Mary and Mary Magdalene were feeling as they rushed from the garden to lay their hands on Jesus’ resurrected body: Can this be real? Can we even believe it’s true? And what happens if it is true, and we follow him once more – what then? Will he be ripped away from us a second time? Will our spirits break and our hearts shatter into a thousand pieces again? Will it be worth it? 

– – –

I recently read Alan Brennert’s book Moloka’i, which tells the fictional story of Rachel Kalama, a young native Hawai’ian girl banished to the historic leper colony of Kalaupapa on the island of Moloka’i. The story spans her life from the 1890s to the 1940s, beginning with a devastating separation from her family at age 7. Found to have what we now call Hansen’s disease, she is forcibly removed to the colony, placed in a girls’ home, and thereafter only sees her father, whom she is not allowed to touch for fear of contagion, a few times a year. She writes letters with her mother and siblings for the first few months of her exile, but then has no way to contact them after they move with no forwarding address. Desperately unhappy, she tries to run away, only to be exploited and physically abused by another colony member. In one fell swoop, she loses everyone who means anything to her.

Rachel is one of the lucky ones, though; unlike many of the young girls in the home, her disease does not advance quickly and she survives to adulthood, even managing to build a life, fall in love, and create community with others who have been outcast from a society desperately fearful of a misunderstood and, at the time, untreatable disease. 

Over the decades of her life at Kalaupapa, Rachel undergoes dozens of experimental treatments for her leprosy. When one finally begins to work, Rachel, now in her 60s, is given what is known as “temporary release” status and allowed to leave the leper colony. (That may seem like a spoiler, but most of the juicy, interesting stuff takes place while she’s still on Moloka’i; I promise it’s worth the read even knowing part of the outcome.) Upon release, Rachel’s first order of business is to seek out the family she hasn’t heard from in years, to try to reconnect to and regain all that was ripped away from her as a child. 

With hope growing in her chest, Rachel tracks down her aunt Florence, who opens the door to find the niece she had long believed dead standing on her front stoop. 

“ ‘Aunt Florence, it’s me – Rachel. …I’m back from Kalaupapa!… They released me, Auntie. I’m cured!’ She felt tears running down her cheeks. ‘I can’t believe I found you! I’m so happy to see you!’ 

Florence’s gaze swept up and down the street, then back to Rachel. She took in Rachel’s [leprosy-]clawed hand and a look of distress spread across her face. ‘Why do you come here?’ Florence asked, and now even Rachel could see the black blossoms of fear in her aunt’s eyes.” 

Rachel’s aunt is afraid not of catching leprosy, but of the rejection her family experienced when it was discovered they had a relative with leprosy. Their home was vandalized, their children bullied; they lost their jobs and were shunned by neighbors and even their church. They had to start over as strangers in another community, and the trauma of that loss has marked Florence so deeply that it swamps in a tidal wave any joy she might have had at discovering her niece is alive and well.

“Florence reached out, touching her hand gently to Rachel’s cheek. ‘Took years before everybody forget about the [leprosy]. Nobody here knows. Nobody.’ She glanced around as if afraid people were watching even now, watching and judging. ‘Go ‘way, baby,’ she said softly, sadly. ‘I’m sorry. Please, go ‘way.’ Slowly but firmly she closed the door on her niece.”

Rachel is understandably devastated by her aunt’s rebuff. But she is not willing to give up, and next she tracks down her sister Sarah, now living on Maui because she and Rachel’s mother and brothers also had to leave their home and start over to escape the unbearable stigma of the disease. Unlike her aunt, Rachel’s sister wraps her in a bear hug and begins to cry tears of joy. “[A]ll of the tension,” Brennert writes, “all the fear that had been building in Rachel since seeing Aunt Florence – all of it melted in a moment’s laughter, and she returned Sarah’s embrace just as fiercely.” Sarah invites the sister she thought she had lost forever into her kitchen and then into her life, asking her to stay with her and live out their days together:

“ ‘Two [old] sisters sharing a house and bickering over religion, doesn’t that sound grand?’” said Sarah. “ ‘You’ll always have a home here.’ Rachel held back tears. ‘Thank you, Sarah,’ she said softly. ‘I can’t tell you how much that means to me.’” 

Rachel’s sister Sarah faced the same possibility Aunt Florence did, that the people in her small town would ostracize her if they learned of her sister’s disease, that the life she had risked so much to rebuild might crumble in her hands. But whatever fear she might have felt, she chose love, and hope, and joy instead. And her choice mends a hole in the fabric of her sister’s heart; it changes both their lives for the better.

– – –

On Easter Sunday especially, with the beautiful flowers and the soaring music and the feeling of joy fizzing in our hearts, we can forget that resurrection can be terrifying, holding out before us not just the prospect of new life but also the specter of devastating loss and the risk we run by choosing, once again, to love, to believe, to hope. 

Maybe you have been there. Maybe you are there now, having experienced great suffering and realizing that there might, just might, be new life on the other side of it; but you’re scared it isn’t real, that this, too, will be snatched from you in the blink of an eye; or your loss feels so devastating that you’re not sure how to live in a world where there is still joy with your name on it.

Maybe you are wondering whether the good news of Easter is really for you – if it is worth it to lay your hands on Jesus’ feet, to risk loving with abandon even though you’ve been hurt, to risk giving generously even if you’ve been taken advantage of, to risk hoping against all evidence that healing is possible, to risk choosing the way of justice and peace even though you know it is not always a smooth path.

This morning, as we witness the resurrection alongside the two Marys, we are reminded that fear and joy often coexist – and that we get to choose which we will embrace. The two Marys, after all, could have stayed quiet, kept safe by their fear, comfortable in the sorrow they knew; they could have, figuratively speaking, shut the door in Jesus’ face and kept the other disciples in the dark. Yet despite all they have lost, and all they still have to fear, they choose to embrace Jesus, to literally wrap their arms around new life. It’s not that their fear has disappeared; it’s that they decide to nurture their fragile hope and nascent joy rather than to let their fear overwhelm them. And because of their choice, the world is never the same.

Friends, this Easter, may your hope, your courage, your joy be stronger than your fear. May you hear Jesus’ words as he holds you in his scarred, resurrected embrace and tells you, with such compassion: “Do not be afraid.” And may you find that his words carry you not just to choose joy in your own life, but to live it, out loud, with others, to embody it in such a way that the world is forever changed. Amen.