Over the last couple of weeks Lori and I have been going from room to room in our home, thinning things out, determining what we’ll take with us to Colorado and what we’ll leave behind. We have three kids, and two of the three, I’m happy to say, made the final cut. I found three years of Architectural Digest magazines in a cupboard, and I didn’t even know I had a subscription, so they’re gone. Dozens of Barney and Friends VHS cassettes, a box of Cadbury Eggs from 2007, three broken laptops, a Member’s Only jacket – these are just a few of the things that won’t make the move.
In the process I came across one of my all-time favorite books, Dr. Seuss’ The Foot Book. When Matthew was a toddler, he was big into The Foot Book. In fact, if you were to come to our home at the time, he’d meet you at the door, usually without clothes on, and hand you The Foot Book to read to him. It got to be a bit awkward at times. People generally didn’t stay very long at our home back then. I think the first words Matthew ever spoke were, “Hey, where did everyone go?”
The Foot Book. We still have it. Left foot, right foot, feet, feet, feet. How many, many feet you meet. Feet in the morning, feet at night. Left foot, left foot, left foot right. Slow feet, quick feet, trick feet, sick feet. Up feet, down feet, here come clown feet.
Why are feet so fascinating to children? For starters, your feet take you places. You can walk with them, run with them, jump and dance and climb with them. They take you places. When you finally find your feet, you’ve got a future. No more crawling around, staring at dust mice and shoelaces. From The Foot Book you graduate to Dr. Seuss other favorite book, Oh, The Places You’ll Go. And there’s nothing like imagining all the places you’ll go, all the life that’s out there yet to be lived.
But something happens when we grow up. For a lot of us, the appeal of adventure and the unknown wears off; there are some places we don’t want to go, not in a boat, not with a goat. The older we become, the more we tend to measure our steps. We lower our tolerance for risk and uncertainty. Maybe that’s because we think we have more to lose the older we get. Maybe it’s self-preservation. Play it safe. Don’t take chances. Don’t go to unknown places.
Dr. Seuss should have written a book for grown ups entitled, The Cheek Book, for people who sit around while life is passing them by. Left cheek, right cheek, cheek cheek cheek. Cheeks on the sofa, cheeks on the seat. Big cheeks, small cheeks, there sit your cheeks; his cheek, her cheek, fuzzy fur cheek.
You can’t just sit around. Staying in one place, clinging to what you’ve got – it doesn’t get you far for long. Life is perpetually in motion; sit too long it and it passes you by. But going after it is such a frightening prospect for some. We’re so afraid of what might happen to us if we actually step out of our comfort zones.
Did you notice the word that appears most in this Easter story from Matthew’s gospel this morning? It appears, in various forms, four times in ten verses. That word is fear. When they discovered that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb, the guards were so stricken with fear that they went narcoleptic in the garden. When the women arrive at the empty tomb and the angel appears, what’s the angel’s message – “don’t be afraid.” He saw the fear in their eyes. Fear is everywhere in this story. Matthew says they left the tomb in fear, running from what they could not understand. And as they’re running, the risen Jesus bumps into them on the path, and what does he say? “Don’t be afraid.”
You can’t blame anyone in the Easter story for being afraid. On Friday, their world came crashing down on them. Their best friend, their Lord, had been publically executed. They were shell-shocked; their nerves were frayed; they were exhausted, grief-stricken, heart-broken and afraid—afraid of what could happen next. Considering what they had all just gone through over the last few days, they were asking each other, “What else could go wrong?”
Have you ever spoken those words? “What else could go wrong?” You go through hardship, adversity, loss—and you wonder, what else could go wrong? It’s a question of caution and self-preservation, and it has a close cousin, in the form of another question that we often ask ourselves: “What’s the worst thing that can happen?”
Whenever we’re faced with a new challenge or opportunity in life we ask that question: “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” You’re thinking about taking a new job, or you’re considering moving across the country, or you’re thinking of taking up sky diving as a hobby – what’s the worst thing that can happen, you ask yourself? Your life insurance company asks that question about you. Do you ride a motorcycle? Do you work on a bomb squad? Do you bungee jump on the weekends? Based on what we know, what’s the worst thing that can happen to this guy?
Once you figure out what that worst thing is, you say, I can’t do that. It’s too risky. Stay put. Don’t go there.
That’s what they were all thinking after Jesus was crucified. The worst thing that could happen to Jesus actually happened to Jesus – betrayal, beatings, humiliation, public execution. And the worst thing that happened to Jesus was also seemingly the worst thing that could also happen to them. This was the price of faith. Suffering and death was the cost of believing. So when Jesus was finally buried in the tomb, so too was their faith, their courage. If there ever was a time to play itself and minimize your risks, it was on Easter Sunday, with Jesus locked away in the tomb.
They had learned the hard lessons of the past. They had learned that following Jesus was risky business, and they didn’t want anyone, especially themselves, to go through any of that ever again.
Tragedy will do that to people. When tragedy strikes, it can paralyze us. Whatever is not taken from us we try to lock away safely in some hidden, deep part of the heart, where no one can break in and steal it. Self-preservation. We define our lives by what has happened to us in the past, and we live our lives clinging to what we have left, making sure that what happened in the past never happens again.
This is why, when those followers came face to face with the risen Jesus on Easter morning, their first instinct was to fall to the ground and grab his feet, holding on to him, holding on to what used to be. If I could only go back to that moment when he was still with me. That’s what they thought. If they could just hold on to him, they’d never have to lose him again. Everything would be like it used to be, before that tragedy, before the accident, before the break-up, before the diagnosis.
Tragedy and loss can keep you stuck in a moment. All you can think about is the way it used to be, and there’s no future. Have you ever been there?
A newspaper ran a story several years ago about a woman and her parakeet, “Chippie.” The woman was vacuuming Chippie’s birdcage one morning with a canister vacuum cleaner—the kind with a metal tube with various attachments. She was cleaning the cage without the attachments when the phone rang. And when she turned to pick up the phone, she heard the horrible sound of Chippie being sucked into the vacuum cleaner – first the whoop and then the thud. She ripped open the vacuum bag and found Chippie — stunned, but still alive, covered in soot and dust. She ran to the faucet and held Chippie under the water to clean him off. Then she spotted the hairdryer on the bathroom counter. She turned it on and held Chippie in front of the blast of hot air to dry him off. The reporter asked the woman, “So how’s Chippie doing now?” And the woman said, “Chippie doesn’t sing much anymore. Now he just sits on his perch and stares.”
One minute we’re sitting happily on our perch singing, the next minute we’re hooverized by something so painful, so horrible that, even though we’ve survived it, we’re never quite the same. The loss of a job, or the loss of a lover or a friend or a parent or a child; the loss of your health; the loss of something inside you that cannot ever get back. Life can be hard and unforgiving, and there are moments for all of us when we don’t feel like singing anymore.
But the Christian faith has something to say to us in those moments. It says that the resurrection of Jesus is our resurrection, too. Easter is a story about the resurrection of all of us. For Jesus is was a resurrection from death; but for his followers it was a resurrection from fear, and fear is often as dark and paralyzing as death itself. To live in chronic fear is to be dead even before die. To have faith is to be alive even in the face of our greatest fears, because faith, in the end, is not having answers, or even the absence of doubt; faith is courage to face your fears and believe in spite of them.
One of my best friends died late last fall from breast cancer. We had gone to seminary together, stayed in close contact over the years. We met once a month for conversation. One of the most faithful, courageous people I have ever known. The day before she died she texted me to come to the hospital and pray with her. When I arrived, I found her in her bed, wrapped in a beautiful blanket – one of the most gorgeous blankets you’ve ever seen. It was blue and white, and it said, “Dodgers Baseball.” Lynne told me that she had her husband bring the blanket from home, because she knew she was about to meet the big Dodger in the sky, and she wanted to be ready.
That’s the kind of hope that you find characteristic of people of faith, who trust that their life is in God’s hands. They have a kind of fearlessness about the journey they are about to take.
We call that hope, and hope is knowing that the worst thing that can happen to us will never have the last word, because the last word is not death but life.
We have several hundred butterflies waiting to be released outside in just a few minutes. They began as little chrysalids. Do you know what a chrysalid is? These are not caterpillars that sprout wings. We think these caterpillars just zip themselves up into their little sleeping bags and wake up days later with a set of wings. But when those caterpillars zip themselves up, they actually die. They decay on the inside, becoming a kind of soupy mess. The image is haunting. Death. Yet nature has taught them not to fear it.
I peeked inside one of those little boxes this morning, and there she was, standing upright, her painted wings twitching at the first sign of light. A beautiful painted lady butterfly.
I asked her: “How’d it go?”
She said, “OMG, you have no idea.”
“You all right,” I asked her?
“I feel like I just came back from the dead,” she said.
“You did,” I said. “You’ve been through a lot. But look at you now.”
She blushed. “How do I look,” she asked me, flaunting her wings?
“Stunning,” I said. “You look like Lady Gaga. Are you ready for Easter?”
“I don’t know,” she replied, glancing at her new wings. “I have no idea how to use these things?”
“Have faith,” I said, “When the time comes for you to fly, you’ll know exactly what to do.”
Before I closed her box, I asked her one last question. “What’s your name? Tell me your name.”
She took a deep breath, exhaled, and said, “Christian. My name is Christian.”