Intersection of Fear and Joy

An Easter sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, CA

April 9, 2023

Matthew 28:1-10

Introduction to Worship:

Good morning, and Easter blessings to you. Thank you for joining us for worship this day.

The story of Easter is ultimately a reminder that even when we think we know how a story is going to end, we’re sometimes wrong. 

For Jesus’ friends and families, they’d seen his death, witnessed his burial. They knew the ending to this story because they had seen it before. 

But then the women arrive to find an empty tomb. 

What are the stories in your life right now that you think you know the ending to? 

Maybe you think the end of a relationship is the end of love. Are you willing to be wrong about that? 

Maybe you think that because elected leaders have been dreadful in the past, they will always be dreadful and so why do we even care. Are you willing to be wrong about that? 

Whatever story you think you can already see the ending for, Easter is a reminder to pause. To hope. To trust that the unknown future will turn out to be loving. 

Are we willing to be wrong if it means we just might see new life? Are we willing to get past our fears to do what God is calling us to do? 

Let us enter this day with intention. Set your worries down for the moment. You can grab them again later if you have missed them. Breathe in God’s grace. Breathe out God’s love for the world. 


If you had met childhood me, in my natural habitat, you would have met a real homebody scaredy cat. I didn’t want to go anywhere. When my parents would load me in the car, even to go to the lake, a place I love, I would cry out, over and over, “I want to go home to my home on Manito Boulevard!” I was a real delight. 

When I was in first grade, and we were visiting family in San Diego for Christmas, I refused to get in the car when the family was heading to Tijuana for the day. I am pretty sure I knew nothing about Mexican jails or drug cartels, but I knew I wasn’t going to leave the country. No how. No way. 

And so my grandmother stayed with me in San Diego while everyone else went for a wonderful day eating tacos and buying fun souvenirs. 

Even at the time, I think I knew I was missing out. But my fear of leaving the relative safety of home was stronger than my sense of adventure. 

Since that day, I’ve learned that life happens when you leave your comfort zone. Sort of. I travel the world now. I moved to a new city and new job in the middle of a global pandemic, after all. That’s an adventure.  But I’m still sort of a homebody. 

I had a friend visiting me last week, and she had been in town one hour before she told me she found a bar a few blocks from my place where we could go play trivia that night. I’ve lived here almost 3 years and I had yet to scout out a trivia location. We went. We had a blast. We lost. 

You can tell she’s the fun one.

I still need those reminders to leave home some days. 

Listen again to how it began. After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.

I’ve preached before about how the women were the first witnesses at the tomb of Jesus, and the first people to proclaim resurrection. But as I read the story this year, I had to wonder if I would have been with them.  I wonder how I would have responded if the Marys had texted me and said “tomorrow, when it is still dark and super early in the morning, we’re going to the cemetery. You in?

I suspect I would have texted back. “sorry. My mom taught me not to be out walking at cemeteries in the dark. But I hope you have a great time.”

And in my fear, and my preference for comfort and safe predictability, I would have missed the resurrection. 

If you also consider yourself to be a person with a healthy fear response, take heart. In other gospel accounts, Jesus also shows up to the men who were hiding and afraid behind locked doors. So I’m not saying Jesus doesn’t show up to fearful people.

I am saying that sometimes we can let our fear keep us from seeing empty tombs. And in a world of fear, death, anxiety, turmoil, and doubt, there’s something powerful about a clear image of an empty tomb and a clear message from the earthquake inducing angel. 

Do not be afraid. Come, look. See where they laid him. He is not here. He is going ahead of you to Galilee, there you will see him. 

I imagine most of us have not had a literal conversation like that with an angel, but I do know what it feels like when an earthquake, literally or metaphorically, rocks your world. 

And things are not what you thought they were. When the dead aren’t in their tombs, when the test comes back with bad news, when death and grief and despair threaten to overtake. 

That’s when an angel tells you to get going because we don’t have the kind of time that allows us to stay at the empty tombs. We have to go testify to new life. 

And after those earthquake moments, big or small, when I have done what I was afraid of, because I knew it was the right thing to do, it is then that I have found confirmation and peace in my heart.

I’m not suggesting you need to jump out of airplanes or handle snakes. Sometimes our fear is wise. But I do think we are culturally conditioned to avoid the struggles and the challenges that can become the chrysalis where we can be transformed. And we all have our own struggles and challenges. 

What do you know you are called to do that you are afraid to do? 

When my dad was dying, we knew he was dying, and yet we were afraid to talk about his death, as if it would make it happen sooner if we spoke the words. But I also knew that if I couldn’t acknowledge it, I wouldn’t be able to have the conversation with him I needed to have. So, one night, when the rest of the family went to dinner, I stayed home with him. And as soon as they were gone, I overcame my fear, pulled out my laptop and said, “okay. I’m taking notes. I want to know all the things you want to make sure we take care of after you are gone. What are your worries about mom? Us? The house?…..” And as soon as I said that, it was like a torrent unleashed. He was relieved to be able to voice his fears and worries. And then he also shared the things for which he was grateful and stories about my childhood I was too young to remember, and stories from his life I’d never heard. We laughed. We cried. It was a sacred night. 

He lived another six months after that conversation, but it is that night for which I will be forever thankful. And when his death did come, we were able to face it, square on. There was a level of peace for me in his passing, because of the honest conversations we’d had. 

I know that you don’t get to see all deaths coming in advance, like happened with my parents. But it’s a reminder to me to set aside my fear to have those conversations with the people I love, while the sun is still shining. 

What do you know you are called to do that you are afraid to do?

I suspect the Marys did have some trepidation as they headed to the tomb that dark morning. The Roman authorities had stationed guards at the tomb and were threatening arrest of Jesus’ followers. 

In the other gospel accounts, the women headed to the tomb to anoint the body with spices and oils. But in this account, there isn’t a mention of that. They were going to see the tomb. 

I know many people who are facing tombs right now, tombs of tumors and cancer, tombs of addiction or anxiety, tombs of loss. Or tombs caused by political malice, politicians denying care and safety by refusing to act on gun violence prevention and by reducing access to healthcare for women or our siblings who are transgender.

So many tombs.

And some mornings, the faithful response is to set aside your fear,  get up in the dark, gather your courage, and go to look straight  at them.

But Jesus’ tomb is empty. 

Over the millennia, the church has used different language to talk about both Jesus’ death and his resurrection. Often, we’ve said that Jesus needed to die on our behalf as a sacrifice to appease an angry God. 

But I don’t think that’s true. And in a world full of fear and tombs, it is not faithful for us to use that imagery. 

Steve Garnaas-Holmes writes: 

“God did not send Jesus to die for your salvation.  God doesn’t need any more gore. And you’re already saved. Jesus came to love. …

“What saves us is not that Jesus takes God’s punishment, it’s that (God) he takes our injustice—and swallows it up in love. We’re not saved byJesus’ suffering. (Plenty of people suffer more than he did.) What saves us is his forgiveness. The mystery is that in Jesus on the cross we see both ourselves and God. We see our sin: Jesus wounds are evidence of how we judge and hurt other people, all in the name of being right. And we also see God’s grace: that even as we torture him to death Jesus forgives us. So, yes, he dies because of our sin, but he dies with us, not instead of us, dies for love, not punishment. This love saves us from our life-stealing fear.

Jesus’ tomb is empty. And that empty tomb reminds us that God’s love saves us from our fear, which frees us to see life as the gift it is. 

The angel, all lightning and strong biceps, is left sitting there on his stone, while the women leave the tomb quickly, in a mix of fear and joy.

The Marys experienced the whole gamut of emotion that morning at the tomb—the fear and the great joy—and they ran to tell the disciples what they had seen, women preaching the first easter sermon.

It is in that moment of acceptance, where they realize life is scary, and angels are terrifying, and Christ is risen, and they were witnesses, and joy is rising up from someplace deep with in them—unexpected and barely hoped for— when they are laughing even as tears run down their cheeks, that they encounter Jesus. Note that their joy shows up before they even see Jesus. 

He meets them in the midst of their complicated and messy lives as a new day is dawning.

The translation of his salutation seems odd to my ears. “Greetings!”, he says.

Nobody says that, Jesus.

But the Greek word was the common greeting you’d use when you saw your friends.

“Howdy”, he says.



“What’s up.”

Yes, the world has been turned upside down, and life has swallowed death, and everything they thought they knew was wrong, and they are terrified and laughing at the same time, but when they see the risen Jesus, he is the same—greeting them as usual.

And they fall to the ground, take hold of his feet and worship him.

They may not have much experience with stone rolling, lightning angels, or resurrection, but they know Jesus when they see him. They know who loved them until the end. And back.

Two thousand years later, we are much the same. We don’t understand the resurrection. We don’t get the physics of angels.  

Much remains a mystery, which is as it should be. But don’t let the mystery leave you either terrified like the guards, or so distracted you miss the risen Lord when he says howdy.

We are here today because the women accepted the mystery and ran right into Jesus on their way to tell the story. And he confirms that we can’t let our fear get in the way of preaching an important message of life and love and hope. 

‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’

Friends, Matthew sends us this morning, like the Marys, in our fear and great joy, to bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ.

I invite you to consider the cost in your life to following a man who defeated death. Because when we experience the love of God that conquers even death, we are reminded we are called to love as well. We are called to love even as it demands things of us. We love as Christ as loved us. Sacrificially. To the end and back. 

As we go out into an Easter world, where death has been defeated by love, let us live in hope. Because God will meet us on the path, greet us as friends, and send us off to share the news. And it is Good News, indeed. Do not be afraid.  Christ is risen. He is risen, indeed. 



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