June 15, 2014
Church of Peace, United Church of Christ
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Believing What the Angels Say
In the Bible, when the angels appear on the scene, they usually begin by saying the same thing. Their greeting has become so standard, it’s practically perfunctory. So if a Bible angel appears in your path, you can bet he’s going to say, “Do not be afraid. Fear not.”
Which is not a terrible way to greet a person. My concern is this. Do these angels really expect us to follow through? It’s like when somebody walks past you in a hurry and says “How are you?” but they don’t really mean to stop and listen; it’s just a greeting. And “Do not be afraid” is one that’s difficult to believe.
For one thing, these angels are terrifying. In our Gospel story this morning, an angel descends from heaven during the earthquake and sits on the stone rolled away from the tomb. He is glowing. When this angel fails to offer the standard greeting to the guards, the Bible says they shook and became like dead men (Matthew 28:4).
The dazzling messengers of God are scary all on their own, but they also have a habit of showing up into frightening circumstances. It would be one thing if the angels came to offer easy comfort. “Do not be afraid, take the day off and go golfing…” Or “Fear not, I have brought you this gift card to a day spa and a cup of chamomile tea.” That would make their message more believable!
Instead, these angels show up into situations of terror — to those who have seen death too soon, to those who got pregnant unexpectedly, to those who must leave their homes and go to places of danger. The angels stand right in the middle of this and say, “Do not be afraid, but go now and do this scariest thing.”
Of course, the Bible is full of stories of people who go and do the scariest thing. But come on angels, you can bet we will be afraid. Even your glad tidings of great joy turn the world upside down. So maybe you get to order us into the wilderness and into the world, but do you seriously expect us not to be afraid?
Maybe we can become more than afraid. Maybe our fear and our joy wrap around each other. But if we have any hope of learning to trust the angels, we’re going to have to help each other.
In our story this morning, trust is exactly what’s on the line. While the guards by the tomb are like dead men, the women show up, and the angel proclaims to them our entire faith in about three sentences: “Do not be afraid; I know 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…”
That is quite a message to absorb! The women left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and they ran to tell the disciples. On the way, the women encounter the risen Lord who tells them to do the impossible: Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to meet me in Galilee. Even if you’re scared, even if your grief and gladness are all tangled together, I need you to go and tell.
While this plan is underway, a conspiracy is afoot among the chief priests. They decide to offer hush money to the soldiers in exchange for their testimony that Jesus’ disciples came and stole his body. Don’t worry soldiers, if the governor finds out, the religious authorities will protect you. That this scandal made it into the Gospel illustrates the climate of controversy surrounding Jesus’ resurrection. How can you know who to trust? This is the question of all the ages.
Now our story ends with a scene so quick and so important. The disciples do what they’re told and show up to meet Jesus. They worship him, and some doubt. No kidding. Then Jesus claims all authority on earth and in heaven, and whether or not they doubt, whether or not they’re ready to trust, Jesus tells them to do this:
“Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. Remember I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
This is called the Great Commission, and you can see why it is not our favorite. How do we go out and make disciples when our own faith seems feeble and not enough, when we don’t always know how to believe in the Do not be afraid? Also, evangelizing can be problematic. We live in a pluralistic world with a variety of beliefs and traditions. We don’t want to impose our religion on anyone. Great harm has been done in the name of evangelism.
A wise and thoughtful person might look at this Great Commission then look at this congregation and decide, No this is not for us. Jesus asks us to feed the children? No problem. But go out and share our faith far and wide? No we don’t do that, is what any wise and thoughtful person might conclude. Except this person would be mistaken.
From our visioning small groups last fall to the statement blessed and signed last week, the people of Church of Peace are sounding a steady call to become a church that attracts and sustains young people. This didn’t just come up once in a brainstorming session. At every step of the process, reaching out to youth has been named a top priority. In fact, the provocative proposal printed in your bulletin received the second highest number of votes at our gathering last March.
Of course, there are many reasons why churches want more young people. Some people feel nostalgia for the old days when the church was filled with with children, why can’t we bring that back? Some people who are thinking shrewdly, believe that young people could help us pay our bills and do the work that calls for heavy lifting. Some folks who are feeling bitterly, believe that youth have an obligation to the church, they owe us their involvement. And it is their responsibility to carry our faith to the generations of the future.
These are all reasons why churches want young people; you might share some of these feelings. But I am convinced that these reasons are not what led us to make this commitment. See, it’s not because we’re tangled up in nostalgia, not because we want young people to come in and fix our problems, not because they owe us, they don’t…
I am pretty sure, the reason we care about reaching out to young people is because we have something they need. We have our faith —authentic and fragile. We have heard those angels say, “Do not be afraid” and we know what they mean.
When I was elementary school-aged, I lived in a neighborhood that had a number of latch-key kids who walked home from school. If you were a parent who was home in the afternoons, you could volunteer to serve as a block parent and put a green sign in your front window. Children walking home from school knew they could stop at the houses with the green signs if they needed a safe place to go in and get help.
All these green signs in the windows made an impression on me. When I was twenty-three and living in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington DC, I planned my jogging route so it would include late-night coffee shops, churches, and friends’ apartments, so there would always be a place I could stop if I needed to get off the street in a hurry.
Now this is not just for children walking home from school or for twenty-three year olds jogging in the city at night. Whether you’re three, or thirteen, or thirty-three, young people are on the look-out for places that are safe and for people who can be trusted.
Something else about young people… These days, in our country, youth are exposed to a variety of perspectives and ideas. They know how to sort out conflicting opinions, and there is no shortage of information. But when it comes to information you can trust, that’s a different question. Generally speaking, youth have incredibly perceptive BS detectors. The problem for them is not an opposing point of view. The problem comes if somebody’s playing you. They will see through the sham, every time. Young people have a stunning ability to distinguish between what is real and what is fake.
Friends, the very good news is that our faith isn’t fake. Our faith calls us to take demanding action in the name of the Gospel even when we are afraid. It comes with just as much doubt as certainty. It means following Jesus to the places you’d rather not go, because we cannot keep God’s love to ourselves.
This faith is what we have to give our young people. Not a rock concert, nor a pizza party on Sunday nights, nor flashy swag. They will not be persuaded by the glitz and glamour neatly packaged at the Christian bookstore. But they could absolutely be persuaded by you.
In a 2011 interview, the great poet Maya Angelou said this, “I’m always amazed when people walk up to me and say, ‘I’m a Christian,’ I think, ‘Already? You already got it?’ I’m working at it…” I’m working at it. Hers is a faith that is not trying to be what it isn’t. Her faith is fragile and authentic, and her humility inspires my trust.
Wherever you are on your own journey of faith, if you are already a Christian or if you’re working at it, you have something to share that our young people need. It’s like putting a green block parent sign in your front window. All you who know what it is to live through the terror that only gets worse, all you who have seen death come too soon or get pregnant unexpectedly, all you who know what it is to leave your homes and go where it’s dangerous… these are the places the angels show up.
People in this room have heard them say, “Do not be afraid.” We have lived to the other side of war and jail, college exams and heartbreak, cancer and getting fired. This makes us a people who can speak with authority. Now we have the street cred to make the promise of the angels our own, even when doubt and faith get mixed up together.
“Do not be afraid. Jesus goes with us to the end of the age.” This is what our young people need to hear. And when you tell them, they’ll believe you. Amen.