Love and Fear, Philosophy and Disco: Christ is Risen in Deed!
A Sermon for St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul, MN
Saturday, April 11, 2020 – The Great Vigil of Easter
Preached via a Live-Streamed Zoom and YouTube Liturgy
In the name of Christ Crucified and Risen in each of us. Amen.
On this night of the Great Vigil of Easter, we hear familiar words from the Gospel of Matthew. Words so familiar that we might not pay attention to a short phrase that has been haunting me this Holy Week. After Mary Magdalene and the other Mary encounter the angel of the Lord and see the empty tomb, the Gospel says, “they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy.” (Matthew 28:8). Today, in the midst of this global catastrophe, fear – a deep, paralyzing, and terrifying fear – is what we witness in others and what we feel ourselves every day. How do we make meaning of the Holy Mystery of Resurrection when mortality surrounds and overwhelms us? How do we, like Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, with fear and great joy, leave the empty tombs in our lives, in order to meet the Risen Christ who greets us with his eternally audacious and sacred words: “Do not be afraid.”?
In his book, Slavery and Freedom, my favorite Russian Orthodox Religious Philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev writes,
“There is nothing more terrible and dangerous than a man possessed by fear and especially there is nothing more terrible than political power which is possessed by fear. It is precisely the man possessed by fear who perpetrates the greatest violence and cruelty. The tyrant has always been possessed by fear.”
Berdyaev goes on to say,
“We need a heroic love of freedom which lays stress upon the value of every human creature and of every creature in general, which is filled to the full with compassion and sympathy… Every cruel and violent man is a weak man, he is feeble and sick. The strong [person] is the [one] who gives, who helps, who liberates, and who loves.”
In this COVID-19 crisis every person who is giving, who is helping, who is liberating, and who is loving, is already preaching the Resurrection by embodying and enacting compassion and sympathy that liberates us from fear in sublime ways that far surpass my humble homily.
I’ll pause here and attempt to bring the soaring wisdom of Russian Orthodox Philosophical Theology from the dizzying heights of holiness and apply it to the much more concrete, accessible, and dare I say fabulous world of disco music from the 1970s. When Fear petrifies us and makes us think we cannot survive without feeling fearful; when Fear makes us think that we’ll crumble, that we’ll lay down and die, we proclaim with Gloria Gaynor that as long as we know how to love, we know we’ll stay alive. “We’ve got all our life to live and we’ve got all our love to give and we will survive.” Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” teaches us how to reject Fear. Fear is vanquished by Love. Love that liberates us to live our lives fully and freely in giving, in helping, in serving, and in loving. And, if you’ll indulge me for three outrageous minutes, I’m going to let Gloria remind us how to lovingly liberate ourselves from Fear.
The Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ tells us that, “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.” And then the Gospel says, “Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Do not be afraid.’” In this season when we remain spiritually connected yet physically dispersed, we still know how to love. Love enacted is precisely what the Resurrection means in the midst of the overwhelming horror of death. Fear and death are always vanquished by Love and life. Every time we pick up the phone and call or text someone to let them know we care about them, we proclaim love and life, and Christ is Risen. Every time we write someone an email, a card, or show up on their doorstep with groceries, personal care items, or yes, indeed a giant pan of the most delicious lasagna I’ve ever eaten in my life, we proclaim love and life, and Christ is Risen. Every time we choose a loving, tender, and life-giving word of encouragement even though we are exhausted, frustrated, and angry, we proclaim love and life, and Christ is Risen. Every time we give, we help, we liberate, we serve, and we love; like Gloria Gaynor, we reject the violent tyrant who is possessed by Fear; we proclaim love and life, fear and death are vanquished, and Christ is Risen, indeed.
In closing, as Nikolai Berdyaev states so beautifully, “At its highest, love is always the vision of the face of the loved one in God.” Do not be afraid. Love God. Love yourself. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. That’s when Christ is Risen, in deed. Amen.