This year Easter felt like an unfamiliar celebration. There’s no manual for how we’ve been living in the past month. There were no lilies adding familiar fragrance to our sanctuaries. We didn’t raise our voices together in triumphant song. You didn’t host extended family members for a ham dinner. You probably didn’t even leave your home all day! The backdrop to each day is heavy. Reports of sickness and death that are overwhelming our health care systems are continually before us. The threat of contracting the Corona virus has us on paranoid lockdown and is robbing us of sleep. How do we celebrate the high point of our Christian faith in such somber circumstances?
I realized last Monday that I would actually be preaching my Easter sermon and leading a joyful worship service on Good Friday. In order to have time to put the service together we met in the sanctuary on Good Friday, the most difficult day in the Church calendar. I wondered how I would preach resurrection joy on the day that marks a public lynching. That’s what crucifixion really was: state-sanctioned public murder. And I’m supposed to sing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”? As the Psalmist moans, “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”
I have this image of standing in a swamp up to my knees in murky water. We have a swamp just down the hill from our home. Around Garrett’s birthday each year, March 31, we hear the first courageous voice of a spring peeper who has surfaced from the primordial ooze of dark water. Each evening new voices join in until there’s a continual chorus that assures us that Spring has arrived! I imagine standing knee deep in waters that are teeming with life but also filled with decay and death. The rotting organisms in brackish water nourish the life that lives within. Even as I stand in that swamp I can look up to see a blue sky and green grass. The sun shines overhead. No matter where we are standing, hope can be found if we look up expectantly for God!
The minor prophet, Habakkuk, laments in chapter three that the usual yield of the land isn’t happening. The crops upon which they are dependent have failed. There are no flocks in the fields. Something has gone very wrong with the prophet’s world yet…. the prophet makes a decision of faith. It’s as if he is singing, “Even though my circumstances don’t warrant it, I will praise God. I will be joyful in God who is our Savior for He is our strength. God will give me the energy to run like a deer across the hills.” He ends with resurrection praise in spite of a Good Friday growing season.
I had to preach Easter on Good Friday this year and I wasn’t sure I could do that.
Beverly Courrege writes about a terrifying moment when her family went on a ski trip with their church family. Their 11-year old son was a fantastic skier and spent the second half of a day on the black diamond slopes with her husband. At the end of the day they each assumed that he was with the other and ended up at the lodge together—but without him. They panicked. The slopes were a 20-minute drive away and had closed by this time. The mountain would soon be dark. Her husband stayed at the lodge in case he arrived in one of the last shuttles. A church friend offered to drive Beverly back to the slopes. Her mind was racing, imagining her boy on the mountain alone. Was he hurt? Certainly he was scared. As she and the friend started the journey back to the ski slopes, the woman suggested that they pray. Oh yeah. Pray. Beverly realized that she hadn’t thought to turn to God first. Her impulse was to assume that she alone had to remedy the crisis and the thought was overwhelming. In the 20-minute ride to the mountain, her friend prayed aloud with Christian music playing in the background. Beverly closed her eyes and sank into her seat. The peace of God came over her and she knew, by the time they parked the car, that all would be well. There was one ski patrol in view in an otherwise abandoned site. He pointed to the lift house with a smile. Beverly’s 11- year old son came running out at the sound of her voice and they embraced, weeping. “I knew you’d come back for me, mom,” he cried. Their day started at a high point, with excitement amidst church friends. But the boy realized in the last run that he was increasingly alone. He was scared and abandoned. But, in the valley, the reunion was sweet. The friend quietly drove them back to the lodge as they sat intertwined in the back seat. (The Joy of Resurrection by Beverly Courrege, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000)
The resurrection account from John’s gospel begins “Early in the morning while it was still dark…” Mary Magdalene’s feet are in the swamp. She pushes past the fears (which immobilized the disciples) and heads to the tomb, hoping to anoint Jesus’ dead body. She and the disciples haven’t slept well. They are disturbed by their profound loss. She doesn’t know how she will gain access to His body since it’s behind an enormous boulder. But her love for Jesus compels her to move forward in faith. She knew Him at the high point of His popularity. She experienced the excitement of His healing and teaching. Now it was her turn to honor Him at the bitter end of His life, whatever it might cost her.
Mary had reason to be fearful. She had been traumatized by the crucifixion of three men just two days earlier. She could still hear Jesus’ voice, conversing with common thieves on either side of Him. She heard Him call out forgiveness for His enemies. She witnessed the jeering of the crowd, some of whom Jesus fed to their full on a mountainside just a short time earlier. To be associated with a man who was murdered as an enemy to the Empire put a mark on her. Jesus’ disciples stayed hidden but Mary set out in the dark of dawn in the big city of Jerusalem where she did not belong. For a woman to walk alone in a strange place was unwise. Perhaps she prayed as she navigated the path in darkness, making her way to Jesus’ burial place. To her utter amazement she saw that the stone had been rolled back! Her heart skipped a beat and she raced back toward the place where the disciples were hidden. Like the prophet Habakkuk described in his oracle, the power of God restored her energy. She ran to share the news. The two disciples who were closest to Jesus followed her, running to see for themselves that the enormous boulder was moved. There is more running in this passage of scripture than there is in the rest of the gospels combined. What they discovered was illogical but John was moved by the Spirit. “He saw and believed.” Biblical scholar, Tom Wright, describes what broke open within this beloved disciple: “He believed that new creation had begun.” Peter and John returned to the other disciples with unbelievable news of a second genesis!
Mary remained. There was a mystery to what she found in the tomb. Like the mom whose son was left alone on a mountainside, Mary may have begun this journey with fear, guilt and confusion. Perhaps in her panic she forgot to pray, to trust that God was already at work in this tragedy. So we take a moment to stand with Mary as she weeps. Time stands still as we join our tears to hers, remembering those who have experienced great loss this week. We dare not rush the moment because Mary’s sense of loss prepares her heart for the good news to come. We lift up to God those for whom we have carried burdens in the past weeks of sheltering in place. We offer to hold their tears and know that we must fully entrust them to the God of new beginnings. At the right moment Mary’s weeping is interrupted by One who calls her by name. She recognizes Him when He says “Mary.” In that moment she understood that Jesus was alive and rejoiced at His resurrection from death.
This is a familiar passage to many of us. But something stood out to me in reading it this year. Mary’s instinctual response to Jesus’ appearance is to touch Him or hug Him. But Jesus holds her at bay. We have this yearning to hug our loved ones, hold our grandbabies, sit with family members who are in care facilities. We miss being together as a church family but we keep our distance to minimize the threat of a deadly virus. Mary could not hold on to Jesus as she wished. We imagine the embracing of loved ones when the quarantine is lifted. As Habakkuk broke into a run when reassured of God’s presence, I am certain there will be stories on the news that show reunions between medical staff who have distanced themselves from their families for weeks. Older couples who have been separated, one in a nursing facility and the other at home, will clasp frail hands together again. Children will reunite with their playmates, picking up where they left off. They will throw a ball or walk to the Rockford dam together to go fishing. We will reenter our world with resurrection joy—but we will be changed.
I had to preach resurrection on Good Friday. But I wasn’t alone. St. John the Divine Church did not hold services in their Manhattan neighborhood this week. Instead they chose to become a field hospital and readied their sacred space for a congregation of medical workers and Covid-19 patients. Military personnel with medical skills have been sent to New York City hospitals to bolster the exhausted and sickened staff. Emergency workers have received standing ovations from neighbors on balconies and in driveways for their sacrificial service. We rejoiced in the good news that more people were discharged from New York hospitals in Holy Week than were admitted. I preached the resurrection on Good Friday which seems very appropriate this year given the mix of emotions we live with on a daily basis.
Tom Wright, in his commentary on John’s Gospel, points out that Jesus has broken through the exile and made His way back from death to life. Jesus tells Mary, “Go to my brothers and tell them, ’I am returning to my father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” The barriers between Jesus and His followers have been bridged by His death and resurrection. The disciples are no longer His students. They are His brothers. Jesus’ Father, who watched over Him on the cross and resurrected Him from death, is now our father and God as well. The resurrection brings rejoicing, particularly in Good Friday times, that nothing separates us from the love of God. At our mountain top experiences and in the anxiety of dark valleys, God is with us. When we feel like we are quagmired in a mucky swamp, unable to move forward, Jesus comes to us. In the dying and the healing, in a global pandemic and the bright days of summer ahead, God brings new life.
Christ has risen. He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!