Fear isn’t an emotion we usually associate with Easter. We think of Easter and we think of joy, celebration, and triumph. But before there were any of those things there was fear. Two men in dazzling clothes suddenly appeared to the women in the tomb, and they were terrified. They bowed their faces to the ground and just stood there. Like death itself, fear brings things to a halt. It stops us in our tracks. The great preacher Fred Craddock has captured the paralyzing power of fear:
“Why don’t you go out for the ball team?” “I’m afraid I won’t make it.”
“Why don’t you try out for the school play?” “I’m afraid I won’t get a part.”
“Why did you lie to your parents?” “I was afraid of punishment.”
“Why were you so jealous?” “I was afraid of losing love.”
On that Sunday morning just outside Jerusalem the women’s worst fears had already come true. The master was dead. Were these strange men going to continue the horror and sweep them up in death too? They just stood there, stuck, immobilized by fear.
Then the men spoke to them. They gave them the antidote to fear: “Remember,” they told the women. “Remember how he told you while he was still in Galilee.” Memory is the antidote to fear.
I was watching one of the NCAA Tournament basketball games, and just before tip off the cameras took us inside the dressing room of one of the teams. The coach was giving his final talk to the team before they took to the floor. You could see the tension on the faces of the young men. Everything they’d been working for all season was on the line, in front of millions of people. They had a lot to lose. The coach told them to remember who they were. He recalled for them the victories they’d won, the teamwork they’d achieved. They remembered, and when they went out, they played like they weren’t afraid of anything.
The women stood there in the empty tomb motionless, with their heads bowed to the ground, and the angels told them, “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” And they remembered, and they went out to tell the world.
You can understand why the women had to be reminded of what Jesus said to them in Galilee. He told the disciples that “he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering… and be killed, and on the third day be raised…” It didn’t fit into the story they had constructed in their minds, the story of Jesus as the one who is above such things. Peter pulled him aside and rebuked him for such talk. Jesus suffer? Be killed? That’s a thought you just want to put out of your mind. It is one of those things you don’t want to remember. It’s too frightening to think about.
It’s funny how memory works, how selective it is. Something happens or someone says something, and you don’t notice or you put it out of our mind. Then later something triggers that memory, and an encounter or an event that had lain dormant for a long time rises up and shapes your life. There’s so much Jesus tells us we don’t remember until later. So much of what he’s promised that we don’t even notice until the promises are fulfilled. Faith often works like that.
The author Dan Wakefield tells how memory led him back to church. A number of years ago he was stuck. He had just ended a seven-year relationship with a woman, buried both his parents, gone broke, and moved across the country to Boston to start a new job. He was mired in chaos. Then one day he grabbed an old Bible from one of his piles of books and with a desperate instinct turned to the 23rd Psalm. In the months that followed, he recited it in his mind. It didn’t lead him back to his childhood belief in God, but it did give a sense of peace and calm.
One evening, just before Christmas, he was sitting in a neighborhood bar on Beacon Hill when a housepainter named Tony said out of the blue that he wanted to find a place to go to church on Christmas Eve. Wakefield didn’t say anything, but a thought flashed in his mind, “I’d like to do that too.”
He hadn’t been to church since he left home for college 25 years before, but on that Christmas Eve he found himself in King’s Chapel, which he selected from the ads in The Boston Globe religious page because it seemed less threatening. He assumed “Candlelight Service” meant nothing more religiously challenging than singing some carols.
He didn’t go back again until Easter, but after that he wanted to go again. And that presented a challenge. His two initial visits had been on holidays, when “regular” people went to church. But to go back again meant he’d have to cross Boston Common on a non-holiday Sunday morning, and be seen going into the church. He tried to be as inconspicuous as possible, hoping his friends would all be home doing brunch and the Sunday papers so he wouldn’t be caught in the act.
To his surprise, he recognized people he knew. He just assumed he didn’t know people who went to church, yet there they were, intellects intact, worshiping God. Once inside he understood why. He found relief connecting with the age-old rituals, reciting psalms and singing hymns. He was reminded that there’s something beyond his own flimsy physical presence, a God and a community. Wakefield joined the church, started attending a Bible study and teaching Sunday school, and began a spiritual journey that reoriented his life.
Sometimes a parent whose child has grown up and left home will lament to me that her son or daughter doesn’t go to church. “We brought him up coming every Sunday, and now he won’t have anything to do with it.” I remind those parents that a seed was planted and memories were made. One day, maybe an Easter Sunday, when he remembers singing the hymns, the warmth of the congregation, the love and the peace in the prayers, he’ll walk into a sanctuary like Dan Wakefield did and he’ll remember what he already knows. He’ll remember what he learned in Sunday school, those conversations with his youth advisor, what you taught him around the dinner table. Sometimes those memories come and they roll away the stones that keep us from entering those holy places where we encounter what God has done.
I’ve always assumed the stone was moved from Jesus’ tomb so Jesus could get out. But it dawned on me while preparing this sermon that Jesus didn’t need to have the stone moved. His resurrection body could pass through walls. The stone wasn’t moved so Jesus could get out. It was rolled away so the women could see in. And once the women were in, the angels told them to remember, and memory rolled away the stone of their fear that paralyzed them, and they understood who Jesus was.
Those memories of Jesus, our encounters with him in worship and prayer, the way he’s lifted us out of despair, given us direction, calmed our troubled spirits, those are the deepest and most lasting memories we have. They are embedded in the very depths of our souls. I’ve occasionally led worship in nursing homes where a large portion of the congregation suffer from dementia. Some of those men and women can no longer remember the names of their own family members, but when we sing a favorite hymn or say the Lord’s Prayer or recite the Apostles’ Creed, they remember every word. Those memories, like the God they proclaim, are lasting and endure the ravages of the years.
Many of us are afraid for the church these days. We remember a time when the Protestant Church in America had more influence, when Sunday mornings were for church, not soccer practice, when Wednesday evenings were for Bible study, and when the congregations of Donegal Presbytery had more than twice as many members as they do today. Dan Aleshire, retired Executive Director of the Association of Theological Schools, has pointed out how sometimes our memories can be misleading. When the Hebrews were wandering in the wilderness for 40 years they looked back longingly on the time they were slaves in Egypt and had enough to eat, plenty to drink, and roofs over their heads. Whenever they wanted to go back to Egypt, their leader Moses had to remind them of the promise God had given them that they would have a land of their own. It would be different from Egypt, but better. When the Hebrews doubted that promise, Moses reminded them of God’s faithfulness to their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, how God really did deliver on the promise to make them a great nation in spite of insurmountable odds.
These days the odds against the church sometimes seem insurmountable. This is when we have to remember what Jesus said to us, what he’s promised. There was an article in the paper about two new Protestant churches that were being built on the outskirts of Beijing, China. Each will accommodate 1500 worshipers. They were being built because the existing Protestant churches in the city couldn’t accommodate everyone who wants to worship. In 1950, the year after the Communists took over, there were 4000 Protestants in Beijing. For the next generation Christians all over the world feared that the gospel was a lost cause in Red China. We feared that all the hard work and sacrifice of the missionaries was useless. During Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s Christians were beaten and sometimes killed, and churches were turned into museums. But now there are over 100 million Christians in China. The church is stronger now than when the Communists took over. Jesus was never forgotten in China. People remembered the good news of the risen Christ. And God remembered.
Remembering what Jesus has done, remembering his words of life, gives us hope and courage because we know that he will be as faithful to us in the future as he has been in the past. But what if you have no memories to call on ? What if there’s nothing in your experience to draw from? Then you share the memories that the church holds on our behalf, the faithfulness that is proclaimed in the scriptures and the witness of Christians through the ages. Christ joins us with his church and its memories of God’s faithfulness to Abraham and Moses and David and the apostles. Those memories of God’s people through the ages become our memories. And if the memories we have fail us, we know that God’s memory never fails. God remembers us in life and in death.
Remember what he told you. Christ is risen. He is risen, indeed.
 Fred B. Craddock, Overhearing the Gospel (St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press, 2002), p. 127.
 Dan Wakefield, “Returning to Church,” The New York Times Magazine, December 22, 1985, pp. 16-28.