Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church on Easter Sunday.
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But 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, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”
So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.
Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
About a year ago, a friend showed up to coffee late and disgruntled.
“My meeting ran long,” she explained. “And for the dumbest reason. You won’t believe it.”
Now, having experienced long meetings for a wide variety of reasons I would consider dumb, I challenged her to try me.
“There are nine of us on this committee, which is ridiculous already. We’ve been working on this logo, and it’s been a zillion meetings but I thought we were so close to done. And then it turned out this whole meeting—almost two hours—was just to debate whether to use the whole word “and” in the logo, or to substitute one of those ampersand thingys. Two. Hours.”
“That sounds awful,” I said sympathetically, like any good friend would.
Secretly, though, I was brimming with jealousy. Here’s my guilty confession: I would have loved to be in that meeting. Two hours debating design and font choices sounds like my dream.
I’m a graphic design junkie. Lettering in particular. And as anyone who spends their days debating the merits of Calibri vs Avenir Book knows, ampersands are the holy grail of font design.
You know the ampersand. That little squiggly symbol that represents the word and. You find it in things like “Kirkland & Ellis Law Firm,” “Johnson & Johnson,” or “Crate & Barrel.”
The wonderful thing about ampersands is that, far beyond any other character, they can show off a font’s personality. Ampersands can be as simple as a sort of cross hatch, and as ornate as the swoopiest most elaborate set of curves. An ampersand can tell you whether a brand is elegant or casual, authoritative or indie, classic or avant-garde. I can spend hours swapping out ampersands in a graphic design. (Do I know how to party, or what?)
The interesting thing about ampersands, though, is that they don’t really serve to replace any old and. I mean, you can use wherever you want, but a linguistic snob will tell you that ampersands were really meant to indicate a closeness beyond what an everyday and gives you. For example, Johnson and Johnson—the Johnson brothers weren’t just co-workers, but partners in founding the company, each inextricable from the other in creating the business. If you’re ever looking at movie credits and see an ampersand between two writers, that means that those writers wrote the script together, at the same time, collaborating. If writers are listed with the fully written out and, they may have been rewriting the script as it passed from one to the other, perhaps without ever speaking to each other at all. The ampersand, as a single character, literally draws the words it connects closer together on the written line. It encourages you to speak the phrase all in one breath—rhythm & blues, bed & breakfast, dungeons & dragons. Not one without the other.
And so, from a lecture on my favorite, logogram, I come to the Easter story.
This week, as I glanced through Matthew’s version of Jesus’ resurrection, one phrase jumped out at me like it was in big bold capitals:
Fear and great joy. It’s a phrase simply begging for an ampersand.
It’s how Matthew describes the women, that first Easter morning. The women, Mary & Mary, have gone to the tomb and seen it empty, heard the angel telling them not to be afraid, been commanded to go tell the good news that Christ is risen. Matthew writes that “they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.”
With fear and great joy.
Now the angel had told them not to be afraid, but I could’ve told the angel that telling people not to fear—or not to worry, or not to be upset—doesn’t really work most of the time. We humans tend to feel what we’re going to feel, and we can’t be commanded otherwise.
And you can’t shake off the sense of doom, of despair, of worry, of grief, that quickly. According to Matthew, these women had followed Jesus from his early days in Galilee, bankrolling his ministry; they had seen the stormclouds of suspicion gather on the horizon as his fame grew; they had heard the whispers turn to screams; they witnessed the crucifixion; they had watched as their dear dead friend was sealed in the tomb.
You don’t shake that. Even if you’ve been holding on to faith, onto hope, even if you’ve heard Jesus himself say he’s coming back; you don’t shake those kinds of horrors, of traumas.
I think this is one of the most human moments in this superhuman Easter morning: the women run off with fear & great joy. Both, at the same time. Fear, that clings to them from their past experiences; and great joy, from what they’ve just learned the future holds. Interestingly, the first time Matthew uses that word, joy, chara in the Greek, is when the wise men see the star resting above the young Jesus’ house, before they even see Jesus himself. Here, at the end of that story, the same joy grips these women—not the joy of seeing the Jesus, but the joy of being given a sign, the joy of being given hopethat he is near.
Humans are made, it seems, to feel many feelings at once, even contradictory ones; the human heart is entirely capable of feeling two or even two thousand feelings at once. And yet we so often insist on trying to erase one feeling with another. We are almost afraid of the word and. We much prefer but.
I’m worried about my diagnosis, but I’m keeping my chin up.
I’m exhausted, but I know lots of people have it worse.
I’m grieving hard, but I know he’s in a better place.
I can’t make ends meet, but I’m counting my blessings.
What if we acknowledged that two things can be true? What if we said, I can’t make ends meet, and also, I’m counting my blessings? I’m worried about my health, and also, some days I feel totally at peace?
The Easter story itself is sometimes taken as God’s great big rebuttal to anything hard or sad or difficult in life; we may have our troubles, but Jesus—and Easter—will solve them all, if we have enough faith.
It simply doesn’t work like that. If Mary & Mary were swallowed up by fear & great joy, altogether, all at once, that very first Easter morning, there’s no reason to think that we, two thousand years later, should be able to exorcise our hearts of all fear and roll around in unadulterated joy. It’s okay to be frightened; it’s okay to be weary; it’s okay to be angry; it’s okay to be doubtful; it’s okay to be heartsick, even on Easter.
Just don’t let go of your ampersand.
Greif & hope. Anger & purpose. Exhaustion & gratitude. Fear & great joy.
Christians are particularly prone to this fallacy, but I’ve heard the sentiment from folks of all persuasions; that if we have anything good in our life, it should cancel out the bad. And, sometimes, the darker corollary; the bad in our life completely prevents us from experiencing any real goodness. Both of these claims are patently untrue.
Developing an ampersand faith means learning to hold the various truths of our lives, and our world, in tension. Yes, this world is seriously messed up; yes, whole nations are hungry; yes, bombs are safeguarded and children are sacrificed to the front lines; yes, the nation seems so divided; yes, the stock market is unsure; yes, your plate is too full; yes, there are too many diseases with no cure; yes, greed and arrogance have too great a hold on our priorities; yes, the news is very, very dire.
And—not but, but and—and there is goodness. There are the congregations packing bags of food for local kids. There are protestors shouting for justice. There are volunteers picking trash out of rivers. There are counselors making kindness their vocation. There are neighbors sharing barbecue and beer across party lines. There are scientists working on new treatments, new medicines. There are people of every faith joining to preach peace. And there are Christians seeking to love their neighbor in the cubicle and the carpool line and the coffee shop, not because it will ever make them famous, but because Jesus asked them to. There are quiet, secret lines of resurrection hope radiating all throughout this world, invisible fault lines of love created by that great earthquake that rolled the stone away on Easter morning in Jerusalem.
To be a person of faith is to practice the ampersand—to hold onto hope and joy and peace and goodness alongside our fear and worry and anger.
But remember how those ampersands can be stylized a thousand different ways? So can our own faithful ampersands. Those women who went running down the road with fear and great joy had spent years listening to Christ’s words, and, particularly and uniquely to them, giving their money to his cause. They had bought in whole-heartedly to his mission. Their ability to believe in his resurrection did not spring newly-formed that Easter morning—they had spent years preparing themselves to practice the and.
Some of us will find our and by reading scripture and memorizing the promises. Some of us will find our and by steadily increasing the portion of our income earmarked for generous giving. Some of us will find our and by marching in the streets and into voting booths. Some of us will find our and by making art. Some of us will find our and in quiet silence, some in hiking the mountains, some in long dinners with our family, drenched in laughter.
Your and—your ampersand—the practice that helps you hold onto Easter joy so tightly that it bubbles up in your heart even when everything feels solemn and bleak—will be as unique as you are. But I encourage you, I beg you, to find it; to practice your and, that thing that brings you to life.
The promise of Easter is not that Jesus fixes every problem in our lives or in our world in an explosion of magic Eastery glitter dust. The promise of Easter is that Jesus has defeated death, that great sentence stopper, after which no ampersand can be placed.
Except Jesus does it. Death and. Death and resurrection. Death and new life.
I love that as the women go running, they run right into Jesus. They didn’t expect him on the road. Meeting him, seeing him, wasn’t part of their commanded task.
And yet there he is, right in front of them, with them again, the way it had been for years. Jesus, wearing the scars of crucifixion, and the big, genuine, overjoyed smile of resurrection. Our own divine and, the living promise that we never run—or walk—alone.
Jesus is alive, and with us still. With us on these bright glittery Easter mornings, and in the long nights of worry and despair, and the boring Monday mornings when there isn’t enough coffee in the world, and even those days when we look around and wonder where this world is headed—Jesus is with us.
Always, always, always: us & him.
Thank God for ampersand faith.