“Perplexed, Afraid, Amazed”
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Easter Sunday – April 17, 2022
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Call to Worship
Sometimes it seems like a curtain
Has been thrown over eternal things.
But now and then a corner of the curtain Is lifted and we glimpse
The glories that encircle us. (Phil Noble, May 22, 2014)
Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.
While they were perplexed, the women became terrified.
Then in their fear, they remembered his words,
and they told what had happened to the eleven and all the rest.
Though their words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them,
Peter ran to the tomb. He saw the linen cloths by themselves,
then he went home, amazed.
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them,
‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.
Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’
Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest.
Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.
But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Have you noticed the beautiful white azaleas blooming in the Terrace Garden?
The large, white blossoms are amazing.
The other day, they were in full bloom, perfect bloom,
and all one could see on the bush was large, white blossoms. Truly beautiful.
But there was more. There was one pink blossom, just one, emerging out of that white azalea in the terrace garden. I had never seen that before.
I have seen azaleas growing within azaleas, with limbs intertwining and different colors of blossoms overlapping one another. I had never seen a white azalea produce a pink blossom. I had to take a picture.
This “event” made me want to know more, to reconsider what I knew about azaleas. Would it be possible to have a multi-colored azalea? Well, I did a bit of google research and sure enough, there are multi-colored azaleas. One called Autumn Starlite, for example, features stripes of pink amidst a white azalea.
Spring blossoms and flowers are amazing to me.
I am often amazed at sports accomplishments. When you enjoy playing sports, as I do, you truly appreciate how spectacular, how unbelievable, certain athletic feats can be.
Some of you will recognize the name Carlos Alcaraz. Alcaraz is a professional tennis player from Spain who happens to be only 18 years old. At 18, he is not just another up and coming professional tennis player; he has already won several ATP finals, including a Masters title at the Miami Open a few weeks ago.
As of Friday, he was ranked number 11 in the world – at age 18 – in men’s tennis. This is unheard of. When you watch him play, everyone in the stadium, including the commentators, are amazed!
They are amazed at his forehand; they are amazed at his backhand; they are amazed at his dropshots; they are amazed at his court intelligence; they are especially amazed at how he somehow gets himself in a position to return almost everything hit at him. He is playing so well that many were amazed that he actually lost his last match at Monte Carlo.
Have you heard of Raymond Goslow?
Recently, the television show Jeopardy held a National College Championship. Competing against students from the top public and private universities around the country, Goslow, a student from nearby Kennesaw State University, won second place!
He went home with a cool $100,000.
Goslow, who worked full time for much of his college experience, said that he felt like he was representing all the people who took a non-traditional path through college.
If you have ever watched those Jeopardy finalists…well, its not just amazing what they remember, but how quickly they remember it.
How about molecular biologist Cynthia Kenyon? Have you heard of her?
Kenyon just may be on to a legitimate answer to extending human life and avoiding certain aging diseases. Her genetic studies with worms show that it may be possible to make our lives longer. Kenyon found that a certain hormone receptor mutation (daf2) doubled the lifespan of a simple worm without impacting the quality of the worm’s life.
And when Cynthia Kenyon repeated her studies on mice, the same effect took hold. Since mice are mammals, it could be possible that the same effect could be achieved in humans! She has discovered that living things with mutated daf2 hormone receptors – whatever those are – are less likely to get aging diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, or cancer, or heart disease. Kenyon has been working on these discoveries for over 25 years.
She now works with Google’s Calico, with the aim to potentially lengthen human life. In her TED talk, she claims that, in a sense, when studying certain species of turtles or bird, she feels like a dog might feel when looking up at its master and wondering, “why are you aging seven times slower than I am?”
Truly, Kenyon is one of the most inspirational women in science today. Her work is amazing.
What do we do when we are amazed?
It seems that, in general, when we are amazed, we become open to having our perspective changed.
Our minds become open to what did not seem possible before.
All the data that had previously been so carefully arranged around our theories of how life is, or is supposed to be, suddenly begins to be reconfigured around a new understanding. The world was flat.
And all the scientific data of the time arranged itself around that supposition and everyone agreed.
Some years later, someone proposed that the earth was round, and that the sun and moon traveled around the earth.
Some years later, the earth was still round, but no longer at the center.
The sun was the center and the earth and other planets circled round about it.
Some years later, wait – our little sun is only one of millions of suns in the Milky Way!
Our little Milky Way, our universe, is just one little cobweb in the immensity of space.
Talk about being amazed….
You would think that Peter, who had seen most everything that Jesus had done, would no longer be able to be amazed. Peter had seen Jesus touch and heal lepers.
He had seen Jesus give sight to the blind and give sound to the deaf.
Peter has seen Jesus give speech to the mute and mobility to the handicapped.
Peter had seen Jesus silence the righteous Pharisee and confound the wise Sadducees.
Peter had seen Jesus inspire rich and powerful men to kneel before him with outstretched hands.
Peter had seen Jesus lift up the lowliest of men and women and bring them into his inner circle.
Peter had experienced his rabbi, this Jesus, taking off his outer robe, kneeling with a basin and towel, and washing Peter’s feet.
Could Peter still be amazed by Jesus?
The witnesses at the tomb that first Easter morning were first perplexed, then afraid, then amazed…
We human beings are accustomed to being perplexed.
We have many times in our lives when we are confused and we do not know what may be coming next.
When we are perplexed, we are uncertain, baffled, puzzled.
We have had so much uncertainty over the past two years that it has difficult to make long term plans, or make travel plans or wedding plans.
As human beings, we are often puzzled or confused, which encourages us to seek information, seek to learn, seek to clarify what is unclear.
Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the others with them brought spices to perform the ancient rite of preparation for burial. They were doing what church women do, what people like Elinor Cook would do. They were taking care of a person in need.
They were doing something unpleasant that others may prefer to avoid.
These were “take charge” women. These were strong, competent women who had supported Jesus and his disciples. They had fed them; they had provided for them; and when they showed up at the tomb, they were still reeling from their grief,
When they found the stone rolled away, and the body of Jesus missing, he situation did not fit within their mental framework.
Imagine Sue Bingeman and Kim Campbell arriving to prepare for a memorial reception and opening the refrigerator in the parlor kitchen and finding all the food that had been there missing. All the cookies and triangular sandwiches that had been left there the day before – gone!
They would be perplexed. They would wonder what in the world had happened. They would probably begin to get a little upset. Suddenly, at the tomb, two men in dazzling clothes stood next to the perplexed women. And the women went from being confused to being terrified.
Luke, the physician, who interviewed these women years later, reports that the women bowed their faces to the ground in terror. Did these men in dazzling clothes seem dangerous to them? Did these men seem to be some sort of “higher-ups” before whom they should bow? Did these men seem like some form of angel, not from this world?
Why were they afraid?
What do you do when you are afraid?
Social scientists tell us that we tend either to fight or flight. We either run toward our fear, embrace it, and fight through it, or we hide out, as in a cave, hoping whatever we’re afraid of will soon pass us by.
As human beings, fear is endemic to our vulnerable condition. As far back as cavemen and women, we have been struggling to survive, struggling to have enough food, struggling to avoid dangerous animals, struggling to avoid diseases and storms, struggling to avoid death at the hands of our own brothers and sisters.
We are still struggling with those same fears and more.
The top fears of today’s world includes fear of heights, fear of flying, fear of injections and needles, fear of thunder and lightning… claustrophobia – fear of enclosed spaces, arachnophobia – fear of spiders, mysophobia – excessive fear of germs or dirt.
Human beings have always been victims of fear, fear that can keep us awake at night. Today, we pray for our fellow human beings who have reason to be afraid – in Ukraine, in Syria, in Myanmar and Madagascar, in the Dekalb county jail, and in poor and violent neighborhoods.
I am comforted by the fact that almost every time a messenger from God appears in holy scripture, the first words from the angels are: Do not be afraid. Moses, Jeremiah, Mary, Joseph, and others. Do not be afraid. I AM with you.
The men in dazzling clothes asked the women “why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, he is risen.”
Jesus had told them numerous times that the Son of Man would be killed, and that he would rise on the third day.
Still, they did not expect his body to be missing from the grave. This did not fit within their mental framework.
But, as Phil Noble wrote:
But now and then a corner of the curtain
Is lifted and we glimpse
The glories that encircle us. (Phil Noble, May 22, 2014)
All those millions of universes out there, they belong to God.
All those surprising studies of molecules and genetic mutations, they belong to God.
All the brain power in the world, all the physical achievement in sport, all the wonders of the living things of the earth, they belong to God.
When it comes to Divine things, when it comes to the mysteries of life and death, are we looking for a dynamic, living, loving, judging, correcting, helping, transforming Savior and Lord? Or have we settled for a static, stale, and harmless view of these things?
The women were looking for a dead body to prepare it for rest in that tomb. What they found was puzzlement, and fear, and wonder!
This past Monday, we held the Memorial service for our dear friend and mentor, Phil Noble. On the various pages of his book of life, Phil sought the truth when he was perplexed, especially when studying Scripture or parsing out the complexities or racism in the South. Phil experienced fear and suffering, especially when a family member was suffering or when he realized that he was listed at the top of the KKK’s hit list.
Phil came to know, deep in his bones, the mysteries of the eternal. Many of you are aware that Phil’s son, Scott, was diagnosed with lymphosarcoma as an adolelscent and that Scott suffered from leukemia.
The family fought the cancer for over a year, doing everything possible, until Scott succumbed to the disease when he was just 13 years old, on Black Saturday, the day before Easter, in 1968.
As you might imagine, that experience had a deep impact upon the life and ministry of Phil Noble, and upon the whole family as well. Lesser men would have gone another way; but Phil cried and prayed and wrote and loved and preached his way through his grief.
One of his poems, written on July 10 of that same year, reflects on his experience of Easter.
I went to Church on Easter Sunday,
But this Easter I sat in the pew.
It was the only light I had
From death on Black Saturday,
To burial on Easter Monday.
I heard the words of resurrection Scripture,
I sang the notes of resurrection hymns.
I felt the triumphant strains from the organ.
I heard the minister’s words of resurrection faith.
I looked at the cross of suffering,
Which had been embedded in my heart for over a year.
I saw the table with its word of life,
Which word has been my yearning for over a year.
I fixed my eyes on the symbol of the crown.
It was rich in color, and the light through it
Cast its luster on everything.
And I knew the crown meant
“Eternal Life”, “Victory”, “Lordship”, and “Reward”,
And I worshiped.
I suppose I have always believed in resurrection.
I do not know a time when I haven’t.
But now to say that I believe in resurrection
Is not adequate.
Resurrection is my food and drink.
It is the breath I inhale and exhale.
It is the shape of my soul.
It is my life.
Faced with perplexity, and fear, and wonder, we discover the need to broaden our definitions, redefine what we know as truth or possibility. We discover that the boundaries of our knowledge need to be reset. Nearly forty years after Phil Noble’s son had died, on August 13 of 2005, Phil penned these words.
Let us be real.
Life is good and to it we cling.
Day by day we are immersed
In the wonderful activities of living.
We revel in the joys life brings,
And we face the difficulties that come.
We work, we play, we plan.
We laugh and sometimes cry a bit.
It is only occasionally that
We lift our eyes
In the midst of swirling life
And glance into the far distance.
To sense there is an inevitable end.
Then as years are added to years
We look backward and remember
Many joys andsatisfactions
Interlaced with a few regrets.
The stirrings within us cause us
To lift our eyes to the horizon
And not just to give a quick glance,
But to look with clear eyes
And know with feeling there is an end.
The gift of God is offered to us
With God’s outstretched hand.
And for a moment we see dimly
Through the dark curtain and glimpse
Life and activity on the other side.
It is then with a quieter peace
We complete the days God gives us.
Friends, when we catch a glimpse of “life and activity on the other side”, then with a quieter peace, we complete our days, with a deeper trust, we face our fears, with an even greater wonder, we seek the truth of what perplexes us.
…now and then a corner of the curtain Is lifted and we glimpse The glories that encircle us. (Phil Noble, May 22, 2014)
Friends, he is risen! He is risen indeed. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church,
April 17, 2022