Joe Rantz was one of nine young men who represented the United States in the 8-man rowing, or “crew” races in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
Their story is told in a fantastic book by Daniel Brown that I just finished called The Boys in the Boat. While the book tells the story of the whole team, it focuses on Joe’s story. Joe grew up in a poor family during the worst days of the depression and the dust bowl. Suddenly, Joe’s mother died when he was young, and his father, racked with grief, struggled to provide for Joe and his three siblings. It was not an easy time. A few years later, Joe’s father remarried a woman named Thula. His new bride, resented Joe. Somehow this boy reminded her of Joe’s deceased mother, and Thula wanted no part of that.
Suddenly, Joe, at age 10, comes home from school one day to find the rest of the family in their car, which was loaded down with luggage and boxes. Joe asked his Dad where they were going. “We have to move, Joe,” he said. “We can’t make a go of it here. The thing is son, Thula wants you to stay here. I would stay with you, but I can’t. The little kids are going to need a father more than you are. You’re pretty much all grown up now anyway.” With that, his Dad strode back to the car, climbed in, and drove away.
Joe walked back in to the house, suddenly alone; full of fear.
As heart wrenching as this story is, the book goes on to tell how Joe began to work to earn nickels and dimes, to buy food, to stay in school, to graduate, to get himself into the University of Washington and to work his way on to the rowing team, a group made up of exceptional young men, from incredibly ordinary backgrounds. Together they went
undefeated in their college careers, underdogs every year who won national championships all four years of college, and went on to represent the US in the Olympic Games that Adolph Hitler designed to showcase German superiority. Joe and his team came from behind to win the gold.
Joe Rantz, over the course of his life, had experienced way too many “Suddenly” moments.
- Suddenly his Mom died
- Suddenly his family abandoned him
- Suddenly he had an opportunity to go to college
- Suddenly he found himself on a powerful, winning rowing team
- Suddenly he was standing on the gold medal platform
I’ve got to be honest: over the years of my life, “Suddenly” has become one of my least favorite words.
You see, I believe that almost nothing good ever happens suddenly.
- When you experience “Suddenly,” it’s the phone call, late at night, bringing bad news
- It’s the sudden diagnosis
- The sudden job loss
- The sudden change in a relationship
Sudden events…sudden news almost always brings anxiety, and sometimes fear.
And our lives…our world…have way too many of these “suddenly” moments.
We see it around us all the time:
- Suddenly, the cast of the movie “LaLaLand” wins the Oscar for best movie. And then suddenly, they don’t.
- A man on his way home is seated on his United Airlines flight, and then suddenly, he is not.
- The Minnesota Vikings crash and burn in the playoffs, but then suddenly, next year they…oh wait…never mind. Bad example.
Our reading today from the Gospel of Matthew makes use of this word twice in just a few verses. And any time that the scriptures use the word “suddenly,” by the way, it usually underscores a shocking and unexpected event.
It is after the resurrection, and the two Mary’s, presumably Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of Jesus, approach the tomb, expecting to visit his final resting place. Instead, something amazing happens. As they approach the tomb, scripture tells us that “suddenly,” there is an earthquake. The resurrection is literally shaking the foundation of the world as they know it, and everything changes!
Matthew’s Gospel is staking the claim that Jesus’ resurrection not only makes a difference in the lives of his disciples, but also to the whole world. Theologians and historians have commented over the centuries, that the cross and resurrection become the pivot point on which all human history suddenly turns.
Then suddenly a “messenger,” the angel, descends and rolls away the stone. He appears, scripture says, like lightning, and is so frightening that the two guards who had been watching the tomb literally faint dead away.
The angel speaks: “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.”
The angel commands the two Mary’s to run and tell the other disciples what they have seen. On their way, suddenly (yep, there’s that word again!) Jesus appears to them, and they bow down to worship him. Jesus’ first words? Again, “don’t be afraid.”
That’s two “do not be afraids” in five verses. Why? Well…
- An earthquake
- A really powerful angel
- and a resurrected Jesus.
You would have fainted too.
“Go and tell the others” Jesus commands. And the two Mary’s do just that. And the rest of the disciples; they were so transformed by the news of the resurrection that they went from cowering and hiding behind locked doors, to changing the course of world history.
You see, in the resurrection, we have God’s promise that life is stronger than death. That love is stronger than hate, and that mercy overcomes judgment. And that all the sufferings and difficulties of this life are only temporary. My friends, we do not need to be afraid, because we know how the story ends.
So if that’s the case, how come we’re not more calm and confident? Why do we still have fears and anxieties?
- Altophobia, the fear of heights
- Glossophobia, the fear of public speaking
- Claustrophobia, the fear of small, enclosed spaces
- PastorToddoPhobia, the fear that this sermon will never end
We all have fears: fear for our health, fear for our children and grandchildren. Fear that the world is unraveling; Fear of death. Fear of the sudden and the unexpected.
And so much of our fear is, to be honest, unwarranted.
A few months ago, I got a sudden phone call that our bishop wanted to meet me for lunch. Uh oh. For a pastor, it’s like the call to the principal’s office. What does he want to meet about? What had he heard? What had I screwed up? I’m running through the rolodex in my head, over and over again.
But then I realized I was being totally irrational. I hadn’t done anything wrong. What had Pastor Amanda done wrong? That was the question!
So I sat down with the Bishop. You know what he wanted? He wanted to pray for me. He wanted to pray for me and my ministry, for my family and for you…for our congregation. And he wanted to share a meal, and know more specifically what he could pray for.
You see, almost always, our fears don’t come true. But they debilitate us. Fear is never helpful, because fear distorts the truth, not by exaggerating the problems in our lives, the problems are real. But we underestimate our courage, our ability and more importantly, God’s ability to deal with our problems and our “suddenly” moments.
“Have courage. Do not be afraid,” Jesus said.
The seventh floor of Children’s Medical Center in Minneapolis is one of the most courageous places I’ve ever seen. I’ve been there many times, visiting children and families who have had to deal with their own “suddenly” moments. As in “suddenly, my kid has cancer.” The seventh floor is the oncology floor. The last time I was there, it was to visit a little girl, with a port in her chest, and no hair on her head. When I saw her, she was walking down the hall, holding her Dad’s hand. She smiled when she saw me. And I was reminded of other visits I’d made to the seventh floor. I thought of all the parents, who suddenly, had to make excruciating choices about their child’s treatment.
And I thought about all the children who faced their fears with courage beyond my comprehension. It makes my fears seem so petty.
And a lot of times, those kids get better. But sometimes they don’t. On the seventh floor, you become pretty familiar with Easter. Because knowing how God’s story ends gives courage. And if we know how the story ends, we don’t need to be anxious.
Secure in Christ, we can live this day, and every day, unafraid of the “suddenly” moments.
I do not know what fears you brought with you today. I don’t know what fears you face in your office, or school, or home. I don’t know your fears about retirement, or unemployment, or family or illness, or death.
But I do know this.
You are a child of God, loved beyond measure.
And wherever you go, God goes with you. No matter where, no matter when, no matter what. You do not need to be afraid. For suddenly…suddenly! Christ is risen, he is risen indeed. And everything changes. We can have courage, for we know the end of the story.
Thanks be to God!