2 Chronicles 6:3-11; Isaiah 26:16-19; 2 Timothy 2:8-13; Matthew 28:1-15
On this Easter Sunday, we hear an angel greet the women who have come to attend to Jesus’ body tell them, “Be not afraid.” This in the aftershock of an earthquake that has put a contingent of Rome’s Special Forces flat on the ground in terror. Then after being told by this supernatural stranger, shining with light, sparking electricity into the air around him, that Jesus had been raised from the dead, they encounter the man himself, freshly awakened from his “final rest,” who greets them, saying “Rejoice!” They clutch at his feet, ecstatic and terrified themselves.
Imagine pulling off the highway in your car, driving into a McDonald’s parking lot, and your friend or child riding with you gets out of the car and says they’re going into the gas station convenience store next door to get a candy bar. You watch them walk into the store, and then, without warning, there’s an explosion, and then the whole store is erupting in flames, and you’re dropping to the ground from the force of the explosion as the gas tanks erupt into flames high into the sky. Everything that was there is destroyed. But as you look up from the ground, and begin to realize that this person you loved is dead and gone, out of the smoke and dust and grime swirling in the air they walk toward, unsigned, unharmed. Imagine the embrace you would give them. “They came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.” And Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid.”
It’s been said that “Be not afraid” is the most frequently stated command in the Bible, as it usually occurs when angels and other heavenly figures appear. In such instances, they seem to instill in us mortals a combination of vertigo, nausea, and terror, like stepping out of your tent on a camping trip and coming face to face with a grizzly bear. If that isn’t enough to make you need to change your pants, hearing the bear speak and say, “Don’t be afraid” would be. We are enjoined not to fear this encounter, even though it turns our world into a funhouse mirror and we feel like we’re walking in an earthquake on a moving, tilted floor, and we hear the train-roar of a tornado in our ears, and we taste the metallic flavor of blood and lightning-strike in our mouth. It seems that through that reaction, God tries to grab us by our shoulders, shake us steady on our feet and tells us, “Focus! Don’t be afraid!”
Fear is understood by some as the fundamental human reaction that gives us security in a dangerous world. In the midst of threats and vulnerability, the experience of fear is understood to justify what Dan Berrigan calls “the Ethic of the Shotgun at the Shelter Door,” that “only those who fear mightily and react violently to others will survive.” (Ten Commandments for the Long Hall). This is the basis of business strategies, national security strategies, and armed security guards at some churches. But Jesus and the apostles of his death and resurrection hold up a different reality, a different ethic, a different story. I want to tell a story to illumine that reality and ethic of what God in Christ did on Easter.
Forty-five years ago this summer, on the night of June 10, 1963, civil rights organizer and NAACP officer Medgar Evars was assassinated outside his home in Jackson Mississippi, while his wife and children were sleeping inside. The terrorizing environment under which African-Americans lived in Mississippi, especially those organizing to register to vote, was not yet grasped by many white Americans outside the South. Many did not fully appreciate yet, not only the determination of white Mississippi to maintain legal white supremacy intact, but the full collusion and cooperation that occurred between police forces, the courts, and civilian death squads. At least until that summer.
The black citizens of Mississippi and the organizers helping them, however, fully realized the mortal stakes in play. Yet, a week after the assassination of Evers, some 150 black Mississippians, mostly sharecroppers, gathered about 90 miles north of Jackson in the tiny rural village of Itta Bena, near the town of Greenwood, for a memorial voter registration drive mass meeting. They packed into the little brick Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church, singing, while passing cars outside occasionally fired guns at the church, and eventually smoke bombs set off in the crawlspace under the church drove the crowd outside, dodging cars and gunfire. A local organizer named William Mcgee, who had been a pin-boy at the Greenwood bowling lanes until recently, fought his impulse to run, and led many of the participants on an improvised march to the Itta Bena town hall, though they occasionally jumped into the roadside ditch for cover from harassing autos and gunfire. “Be not afraid,” indeed.
In town, 58 of the marchers from the meeting were arrested, and then sentenced to the county prison farm. The following week in Greenwood, the county seat, black friends and neighbors of those jailed resolved that, since they were to poor to raise bail for the marchers, they would honor their witness. So it was that 200 more black citizens presented themselves to the county courthouse to register to vote, and the authorities not only turned them away, but arrested nine of their leaders, who after a five-minute trial were all sentenced to six months in jail and a $500 fine each. All of the male prisoners worked on the road maintenance gangs during their sentence, and drivers passing by would sometimes pull out guns to point at them as they passed in sport.
When some of the prisoners went on a hunger strike, the government took thirteen of the men and four women activists and transferred them to the notorious Parchman Penitentiary, a hellish blend of prison and plantation, with cell blocks and guard towers spread over 47 square miles of Mississippi Delta. The guards welcomed them with promises to break them. They were shorn from head to foot, drenched in delousing grease, and then marked apart from even the other inmates for special abuse. “Be not afraid,” yet.
The 13 men — in the middle of Mississippi‘s smothering summer — were crammed into cell number 7 of the death house (a set of cells for death row inmates that were built around Mississippi‘s gas chamber). They slept in shifts, there being room for seven at a time to lie on the floor, and one to sleep sitting on the toilet, while the others stood. During July and into August, guards would randomly remove some to isolation cells or the “sweat box,” a cell six feet square, without lights or windows, vented only by a crack under the door. At the end of July, the guards pulled two of the men out of the death house cell, telling the others they were being taken to be shot.
In fact, they were taken to an interview with federal Justice Department officials, who later then returned them to Mississippi state custody at Parchman. All this time, these prisoners wondered if they would be left to rot by their movement, by supporters of justice, or if they would even survive until someone cared. Some of the men in the group suffered being hung in handcuffs from a bar across the top of their cell door for hours, sometimes 3, sometimes thirty hours. Even hanging by their wrists, sweating and filthy, losing track of time, they would sing about freedom.
Then in August, a group of ministers from northern churches came to Mississippi for a brief tour of the police-state oppression of blacks there. While they ran into one brick wall of resistance after another, one gauntlet of harassment after another, from the authorities during their visit, they obtained agreement to release the jailed activists who had disappeared into state custody for two months, if they paid bail for them. One of the ministers persuaded his denomination’s home mission board to grant $10,000 for this.
Which brings us to Jack Pratt. Jack had studied theology at a seminary in New York in the fifties, where he had gotten acquainted some of the northern ministers who had gone to Mississippi. He had since then, since his time at seminary, gone on to finish a law degree at Columbia Law School, and had taken his bar exam early in the summer of 63. He was at a Long Island beach resting and waiting for the results of his exam when one of the ministers called him to work for them at arranging the bail. He agreed, and launched into several days of struggling with company bureaucracies and Mississippi court systems to get acceptable and accurate bonds delivered.
On the morning of August 16, with all his bail-bond authorizations in hand, Jack Pratt led a four-car motorcade two miles past the main gate of Parchman Penitentiary up to the death-house compound. Officers of the prison delayed while they made phone calls from the office. Jack could hear angry voices in the cell-block threatening to shoot the prisoners. But eventually, four guards with shotguns marched thirteen blinking men down the dusty road toward the cars. When they approached the waiting caravan, one of the guards at a near tower aimed his rifle so convincingly that the drivers of the cars dived for cover under their vehicles. Without much consideration, Jack raised his arm and shouted out: “Put that gun down! I am an officer of the court.” With that, the guards froze until the warden arrived personally to escort the prisoners out.
After delivering the men and women from Parchman to a welcoming celebration back in Greenwood, Jack went out that evening to the county work farm where forty-four of the original prisoners from Itta Bena were still in jail. Again, his bond papers were greeted with deputies, shotguns, guard dogs, and several police squad cars. But in this case, they were not so threatening, and Jack actually had more trouble from the prisoners themselves, who were reluctant to be bailed out into the custody of a white stranger after dark, as that was a formula manner for black citizens to be lynched after a jail release. As male and female prisoners were gathered from their cells to the jail entrance, they all deferred to two frail women well into their seventies. They questioned Jack, listened to his story, perhaps thought about the accent of this young lawyer, then they announced their decision to the others, as one called out: “Praise God! The church has come and set us free!” Be not afraid.
As we will read shortly the apostle Peter’s description of Christ’s resurrection victory over death, I can’t help but picture Jack Pratt stepping out of his car inside the walls of Parchman Penitentiary. Jesus on the cross walked into the heart of sin, death, and hell to set us free. We were all destined to endure the rule of death, the prison of the grave as our final end — a cell more final, crowded, and filled with the stench of millenia of human suffering than any in Parchman. Into the realm of death and Satan, Jesus came with bonds for our release, bonds of his faithful witness paid for with his suffering death. And he proclaimed, like Moses, “Let my people go! I am the beginning and the end, I am the Light, I am Life, and you cannot hold me or mine!”
But like the prisoners jailed at the county work farm, we often fear our freedom. We fear the danger of loss, we fear the Jesus is not enough. The Roman guards at the tomb and around the Temple, the bandits on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, the traders and sellers in the Temple courtyard – all these burdens and constraints and tribulations might be hazardous and difficult, but at least they’re familiar. And if we challenge our familiar fears, who’s to say that we might not wind up with something worse? If we give up our secure job with the great benefits to care for our family, or to use the gifts God has really given us to serve our neighbors, who’s to say that we might not wind up struggling more to pay bills and working into old age? If we take on friendship with and support for our disabled neighbor, to sit with and care for her regularly, who’s to say what we might be sacrificing and giving up? Catholic theologian James Alison has written about this resurrection story: “The birth of Christian hope, like the coming of the kingdom, is a two-edged sword: on the one hand it offers life without end wrapped up in a loving God, and on the other it jerks the rug from beneath the feet of those who come into contact with it, removing the fragile but real security which is offered by life in the shadow of death….” (Raising Abel). But if — if we will walk out in faith with our Lord, we too might declare, “Praise God, Christ has come to set us free!”
Once the Mississippi activists were released, though, they were still in Mississippi, still facing the rule of oppression and white supremacy. And as with the released activists, even after experiencing the risen Christ in our lives, even embracing his feet and stepping out past our fears, we still experience the tyranny of death and sin in this world. Most of those first apostles suffered loss and death for their fearlessness. When we take risks out of love, when we speak truthfully to authorities of power and money, more often that not there is a price to pay. And we must remember, as followers of Jesus, that God did not excuse Jesus from the experience of Thursday and Friday before Easter arrived. Through Jesus, God becomes present “not as a rescuer, but as the One who gives hope to persons so that they may themselves run the risk of becoming victims… to live the absolute twilight of being crushed when [we] cast light on dark places. In this way hope suffers a sea change: it is no longer hope of a rescue, but a fixed surety of that which is not seen, where there seems to be no way out, and where death and its system seem absolutely dominant” (Alison, Raising Abel). That is why hope in the New Testament is so often accompanied by or even replaced by talk of “patience, endurance, perseverance.” But the power of death and sin, its authority, has been broken in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and we have seen the proof of a coming world free of that tyranny, as surely as the authority of segregation and violence was overcome by Jack Pratt in August 1964. The guns of death on the tower, the stone across the tomb, the guards at the door of the tomb, do not have the final word. It is Christ to whom God has made all of these powers and authorities subject.
There’s a story you hear in different versions in 12-step groups that captures the hope we have beyond our fear through the death and resurrection of Jesus for us. It’s meant to describe the way that a fellow addict, someone who has struggled with the same addiction you have, can help you find freedom. It also, though, describes the way that Jesus, confronting the loss of everything with fear and trembling the night of his betrayal, did not fall captive to fear, but accepted his calling with hope, and enduring all pain and the endless oblivion of death, turned what had been the last and final dead-end wall of human experience into a door. He not only made that wall into a door and came out the other side, but opens it to all of us. He shared our flesh and blood, our suffering and death, “so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” (Hebrews 2:18).
This story is about a man who wasn’t watching where he was walking, and he fell down a manhole into a sewer drain, without a ladder to get back out. He called out for help, and a doctor walking by stopped and saw his predicament. The doctor said, “I can’t get you out, but I can give you a prescription to help you feel better while you’re there.” Then the doctor left. The man kept calling out for help, and a lawyer walking by stopped. The lawyer said, “I can’t get you out, but I can sue the city for leaving that hole there.” Then the lawyer left. The man kept calling out for help, and a friend walking by heard him. When his friend saw the man’s fix, his friend jumped down this deep, dark hole beside him. Then the man looked at his friend and said, “Why’d you do that? You could have helped, but now we’re both just stuck down here.” And his friend said, “Yeah, but I’ve been here before, and I know the way out.”
Be not afraid! The Lord is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Story of Itta Bena civil rights activists from Taylor Branch’s “Pillar of Fire.”