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March 27, 2005 (Easter Sunday)—“Laughing in the Face of Fear”

Pastor David Barber

Matthew 28:1-10

Sisters and brothers, children of the resurrection, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from the Risen One, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

In doing some preparation for today, I was made aware of a little-known play by Eugene O'Neill entitled Lazarus Laughed. I looked it up on the Internet and I discovered a script of this play.

Lazarus, who was a dear friend of Jesus, had become gravely ill and died, and by the time Jesus arrived on the scene, Lazarus had been dead for four whole days. But since Jesus was in the business of life, this didn't stop him from doing his thing.

He ordered the stone in front of the tomb to be rolled a way. He shouted for Lazarus to come out, and that's exactly what he did. He came shuffling out, still bound by the bandages of death--blinking into the sunlight.

In the play after the grave clothes are taken off, he begins to laugh--a soft and gentle laugh. He makes his way back to his home and the village is filled with wonder.

Finally, someone gets up enough nerve to ask him what everyone else has been wondering: "Lazarus, tell us what it's like to die. What lies on the other side of the boundary that none of us have crossed?"

With this question Lazarus begins to laugh even more intensely. Then he says, "There is no death really. There is only life. There is only God. There is only incredible joy.

"The One that meets us there is the same generosity that gave us our lives at the beginning, the One who gave us our birth. Not because we deserved it, but because that generous One wanted us to be...Therefore, there is nothing to fear...[and] we are put here to learn to love more fully." And with that his laughter began to fill the whole house where he lived.

Lazarus, in this play, returns to his daily routine, and yet, there's something quite different about him. He's no longer vulnerable to that fear that diminishes the vitality of life. The house where he lived became known as the "House of Laughter," and night after night, you could hear singing and dancing.

This spirit began to spread throughout the whole little village. The quality of work began to rise. Folks began to live more humanely and generously with each other. In fact, a joy settled over this little community because someone had come back saying that there was finally nothing left to fear.

But not everyone in Bethany took delight in such good news. The Roman authorities were quick to notice that this one who had lost his fear of death was, in fact, a threat to the kind of control that they wanted to maintain.

The key to intimidation, of course, and keeping folks in line is always that impending fear of death or some other danger that confronts us. As one of the Roman emperors said, "Crosses and corpses are so educational." So Lazarus represents a real threat. How do you intimidate someone who is no longer afraid of death?

So the Roman authorities move in on Lazarus. They tell him to quit laughing. They tell him that his house can no longer be a place for parties, but all Lazarus does is to laugh all the more.

"The truth is," he says, "there is nothing you can do to me. There is no death. There is only life." The Romans are so frustrated that they arrest him.

Eventually, he's taken all the way to Rome where he stands before the Roman emperor--supposedly the most powerful man in the strongest empire on the face of the earth. He says to Lazarus, "You have a choice. You'll either stop this infernal laughter right this minute or I'm going to have to put you to death. But Lazarus continued to laugh.

He says to the emperor, "Go ahead and do what you will. There's no death. There's only life."

What emerged from the lips of Jesus and from the lips of the angel on that first Easter morning was a similar message. "Be not afraid. There's only life. There's only laughter."

If we take a closer look at our Gospel for this Easter Sunday and the verses surrounding it, we find that fear permeates the entire narrative. When Jesus was executed, his fearful disciples had scattered and were nowhere to be seen.

Yet the religious authorities were afraid that someone might come to steal the body. As a result they petition Pilate to make the tomb even more secure. "We need to take every security precaution here because the disciples may come and take away this imposter. Then we're going to have a far greater mess than when we started."

When these security measures fail and when the word gets out that the tomb is empty, what do they do? They do what all fearful authorities do throughout history.

Not wanting to lose even more control of the situation, they give the soldiers who were guarding the tomb a large sum of money with these instructions, "When you're asked what happened, simply say that his disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep."

Isn't it amazing how bad news can simply disappear and our perception of reality can be changed with large sums of money?

What is interesting in this account are the various responses in the face of fear. The soldiers are paralyzed and become as if they are dead. The religious authorities are into denial and spin control.

And the women, although fearful, are filled with great joy. Al least their feet are set in motion in the midst of their fear, and they do something. "With fear and great laughter perhaps, they run to tell the other disciples what they have heard and seen.

Perhaps this gives us a clue for living in our own time. The old proverb that says, "The more things change, the more things stay the same," is certainly true in regard to the fear that confronts us and all the measures we take to make us feel invulnerable.

We're big on making our tombs secure--and that exactly what our gifts become when they're elevated to a position that belongs only to God. Among other things isn't that one of the factors surrounding the situation in Florida? The gift of life has been lifted to the status of idolatry.

It's become a tomb, and that's true whether it's the gift of life, government and country, the gift of family, or money, or any other gift you want to name.

When elevated to the place of God, they become tombs. They become a place that sucks the life out of us. They become a place for the dead--not for the living.

We're big on security, and we've gotten used to it. In fact, we've gotten so used to it and its become so important to us that we're willing to give up some of our civil rights. We're fighting a war because we need to be safe, and we need to make our country as secure as we possibly can.

As Jim Wallis reminds us in his book God's Politics, "September 11 shattered the American sense of invulnerability. But instead of accepting the vulnerability that most of the rest of the world already lives with, and even learning from it, we seem to want something nobody can give us--to ease our vulnerability.

To be prudent and vigilant in the face of danger is good," he says. "But when a government offers to take away our vulnerability, it borders on idolatry."

Now lest you think I should be talking about more personal and individual situations, the earth shook on that first Easter morning. There was an earthquake--signaling that the very foundations of the earth were changing.

This change did not simply affect us as private individuals, but it spoke as well to principalities and powers, and the empires that seek to maneuver us into living as dead men and women and not as the free and joy-filled people that we are in Jesus Christ.

What's our response on this Easter morning? It isn't that there is nothing left to fear. There's plenty to fear, and there's a multitude of dangers out there. And it's important that we're prudent and wise in the face of everything that seeks to destroy and wreak violence against God's creation.

But our fear does not control us or manipulate us. Like the women our feet become animated so that we run with courage, boldness, and laughter in the face of our fear. Courage is not the absence of fear, but the willingness to act anyway as a servant and a servant church with hope, compassion, forgiveness, justice, mercy, and peace.

In a little book by William Sloan Coffin, he gives us insightful wisdom about many different subjects. Among other things, he says this:

What the Christian community needs to do above all else is to raise up men and women of thought and conscience, adventuresome, imaginative people capable of both joy and suffering.
And most of all they must be people of courage so that when the day goes hard and cowards steal from the field, like Luther they will be able to say, 'My conscience is captive to the word of go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.'

And then Coffin also adds, "Our faith should quell our fears, never our courage."

Clarence Jordan was the author of the Cotton Patch Gospel and a civil right crusader. During the 1960s he founded an interracial community in Georgia called Koinonia Farms. As a result he was shunned by the culture all around him and threats were made on his life.

In 1969 he died of a heart attack. No local funeral director would help so he was buried in a plain box on a hillside near his farm. His friend, Millard Fuller, founder of Habitat for Humanity, officiated at his funeral.

When he had finished with the committal service, it was time to lower the casket. Fuller's two-year-old daughter stepped up to the grave and began to sing the only song she knew. "Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you..."

In the face of death, this is our birthday party, too--the first day in a whole new creation. We, too, like Lazarus, can be filled with laughter, and this house--God's resurrection house--will be called the "House of Laughter."

And so we go from this place--free the tombs of death, walking each day in the newness of life and the promise of resurrection. As members of Christ's resurrected body, we face the hurts of the world and our brothers and sisters in need. We face huge challenges and daily struggles--too many to count.

But as we go, we go with these reassuring words. "Be not afraid. There's only life. There's only laughter."


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