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In the early 80s, John Lennon and Yoko Ono released an album called Milk and Honey that featured a song whose chorus featured these words…
Nobody told me there’d be days like these
Strange days indeed!
I say that as I’m aware that you’ll be watching your Easter Sunday from somewhere other than our sanctuary, and I’ll be at home on Easter morning, not knowing what to do with myself. I’m even taping this early, my Easter sermon delivered on Maundy Thursday. I’ve been in pretty close contact with colleagues who, over the past couple of weeks, have held funerals with 4 people standing 6 feet apart, or on Zoom with 70 little pictures up on a computer monitor, grieving collectively and separately all at the same time. I have a wedding to do in a few weeks, likely in a back yard with as few people as possible and only the bride and groom get to touch. And then, for our Jewish friends, a Passover on screens, and Ramadan starts soon, begging the question of how the communal prayer time will look during the holiest of months for Muslims.
Strange days indeed.
The challenge for Easter this year is, of course, to deliver a message to people in exile, a message that is inspirational and hopeful, one that brings all of the glory and majesty we expect from an Easter in the midst of bleak numbers on the news, as everyone holds their breath for the shoe to drop. Do you know someone who…? Do you know someone who knows someone who…?
We’re not alone in seeking such hope from Easter. The Easter message has long sustained people through bleak and hard times. It has buoyed war-torn communities, lifted those in the grips of oppression, comforted the mourning, and inspired those who have lost everything to evil and destruction. The whole of the Lenten season has seemed perfectly timed with our crisis, bringing to us the message of sacrifice and struggle, and launching us into these strange weeks from what feels like a year ago – an Ash Wednesday mantra that says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” echoing in our ears with the sounds of our own fragility, our vulnerability, our limitations. We now see in stark display the underbelly of the world we have created as the virus attacks those we have made most vulnerable and as we seek to protect the economy over people and lean on a healthcare system that has been twisted to perform for profit instead of for people.
Then we march through a Holy Week rollercoaster of celebratory dinners and stark suffering, of bread and wine and crosses, of deep expressions of love on both sides of life. Death lingers on our consciousness, from these stories and, perhaps more importantly, from our own lives. And when we’re trying to get food on the table, worried about the rent or our retirements, getting our kids some modicum of an education, and terrified about what the future holds…not to mention potentially contracting a virus that could kill us, Easter has to be about something more than the exculpation of our sins from the anger of a God who we’ve been told punishes us with things like an pandemic for the sins we’ve supposedly been forgiven for. And to do all of that in an environment lead by people who either don’t understand or have a completely different set of motivators than the ones that could actually help us is just another log on the fire. Our theologies have to get better, and fast.
Even as we approach Easter’s resurrection hope, an anticipated event for us, such optimism may ring hollow in our ears. It might make more sense to follow the road of despair and depression. After all, it won’t really be Easter. I mean, there’s no such thing as Easter pajamas, and nothing to dress up for. We won’t have the big family gathering, maybe just a ham sandwich instead, because escalloped potatoes seem like a lot of trouble at this point. Without the family and church rituals, does Easter even come?
Yes, yes it does. But it does have to be reset, rebooted, remade.
And for that we need only read the story again. For the first Easter has none of the majesty we associate with it. No choirs, no trumpets, no parades, only a couple of grieving women, in Matthew’s version the two Marys – Jesus’ mother and the Magdalene – come, not to anoint the body in traditional practice as in other gospels, but as expectant witnesses. They are seemingly there because they have taken Jesus at his word. It is the women, pay attention now, who frame the Holy Week story – there at the beginnings of Good Friday, when the men have fled, and now here on Easter morning, with expectant hope. So we begin with the Easter lesson that if you want to look for God, look to those who are marginalized for that is where She will be.
Now we can step back and take notice how Easter may have lost some of it’s prophetic punch. Now we schedule Easter, we write it down on the calendar, buy our ingredients, make our plans…whose house this year, and who’s making the rolls? Never anything that would make the phrase, “Don’t be afraid” necessary at all. Until this year. And suddenly Easter is upon us with new messages, new possibilities, new hope. Instead of “Hallelujah,” perhaps we hear the riches of the day rooted in something more like, “en la lucha hay esperanza,” — there is hope in the struggle.
Easter returns to it’s roots in base communities showing radical hospitality and generosity under the threats of political, social and economic pressure. It re-centers us, knowing that this crisis has not created inequalities or defects, it has exposed them. Our systems have been racist, sexist, ageist, homophobic and economically discriminatory forever. It’s just more obvious now. Easter can become known now not just as a cosmic event, but known in our bodies, our earth, our very being. Like the Christmas that begins the story, Easter is God enfleshed, God who knows our suffering, who knows the worst that we can do to one another, and whose life-giving power resonates through us anyway.
In Matthew’s version, there are only four witnesses to the first Easter, no orchestra at all, and not a lily to be seen. Easter is a small event, almost miss-able. Matthew’s version gives us no indication that most of the world even noticed the tomb was empty. And maybe that’s because Easter is not the end of the story. It might be the end of Holy Week, but it isn’t the end of the story. Easter only starts another chapter…
That chapter is us. The directive from the angel, in Greek at least, is written in the future tense – like “don’t be afraid anymore.” Don’t be afraid of death, don’t be afraid of grief, don’t be afraid of the new life that springs from those difficult moments, for the power of resurrection is now revealed. “Don’t be afraid,” is not the assurance that nothing can go wrong, because often things do go wrong. It is not the assurance that everything turns out for the best, because, if we are honest about it, it often does not. Rather, it is assurance that, whatever may happen to us, whatever a day may hold, God has the power to strengthen us and uphold us; that whatever we must face, we do not face it alone; that nothing we encounter is stronger than God’s love; and that we will always know joy and fear together, for human life is this strange mix of things that we think can’t go together.
And let’s be clear – you can’t just shut off fear like a faucet. The directive “don’t be afraid” is really an aspiration, something for us to reach for each and every time we feel that fear. Of course we feel it now, so what will we do with it? Will we give into it, letting us make poor choices or crushing our spirit, or will we resist it? And how do we resist it? The story helps again, for the angel also says, “Come and see.” Inviting the women into the tomb to witness resurrection, or at least to see an empty tomb, to know that somethinghas happened and the future they anticipated is changed. And then, finally, the angel says, “Go and tell.”
Don’t be afraid, but when you are, come and see what leaning into your courage can produce, what picking yourself up and dusting yourself off can bring, what helping someone else who needs to be picked up, our to borrow some of your courage can do. And then, go and tell. Let us remind each other of these stories, telling that good news of God’s presence among us, even in the midst of death. For that is Easter.
Right now the everything is coming alive. If, like me, you are playing the anxious game of “is this hay fever or coronavirus,” you know that the trees are bursting out almost daily. It makes the new walks through the neighborhood you might be taking even more colorful, and maybe, like us, you are getting surprised by bulbs you had forgotten that you planted giving up their beauty to the warming weather. The cycle that is the death of winter is followed by the life of spring. And none of us are afraid of our gardens. I’m afraid we planted our tomatoes too early this year, so I might be afraid FOR my garden, but not of it. It is what we expect, the barren branches of the oak will soon bear leaves. The brown grass will turn green. The silence of the birds won’t last.
Easter morning does not deny death. Jesus died, like we all will die. What it says is that death is not the final answer. That’s an important message for us to hear as well, for Easter does not mark the end of the story, but the middle. There is much still left of the tale of our faith, the courage and dedication that Easter will evoke in the disciples and their disciples and their disciples, all the way down to us.
We have a chance this strange Easter to not be distracted by the glitz and glamour long enough to experienceit, for Easter is best not as something we celebrate, but something in which we trust, something we seek, something we look for. I don’t know what happened in that tomb, whether or not a body was actually resurrected, or took on a different form, or what the physics of all that could even be. What I do know is that Love had a different answer for us than the one we expected. What I do know is that Jesus is alive and well in the community of faith and that the suffering of Jesus was not about God’s punishment for us, but about God’s identification with us, God made flesh to fulfill God’s purposes of justice and peace in a world of suffering and injustice.
Though I know that we still struggle with the seeming dichotomy that is joy and fear, even more so right now, we are Easter people and the voice from God is again to us, “Don’t be afraid. Come and see. Go and tell.” We have a well of courage from which to draw, for Christ now lives within us all and when our well is running dry, we have one another. We can learn from those who are brave among us. We can lean on one another’s particular wisdom, we can practice hospitality and hope where we can. When we know this kind of courage, this kind of collective resilience, when we call one another to it and support one another with it, this is how Christ stays alive in each of us.
And that is the good news today. Christ is Alive. Hallelujah.