There was an article in the Washington Post on Friday that began by stating the obvious: “This Sunday, millions across the United States will celebrate Easter without dear friends, beloved family and, unimaginably, church services.” So the Post asked nine pastors to provide abbreviated messages that reflected on Easter in the shadow of the coronavirus.[i]
I’ll tell you upfront that I did not read the rest of the article. I don’t know what they said and I’m not giving you their recycled words. What I do know is that, as the title of the article said, there is a shadow over our observance—I even hesitate to use the word “celebration”—of Easter this year. This is not what we expect Easter to be.
Given our circumstances, I want to start this morning with a little good news, because we can all use some, because there are small signs of compassion and hope in these very difficult times.
You might know that our congregation recently gave $5000 to the CommUnity Crisis Center Food Bank and $5000 to the Common Fund as a way of beginning to address the growing needs of people in Iowa City. And that is good news.
Our congregation also recently received a couple of significant gifts to be used to help others in our city—more good news.
But what really seems good to me is what we found out as we started to look into how we might help people who faced having their utilities cut off during this economic downturn.
The good news is that Mid-American Energy has stopped turning off gas and electricity for the time being. Even better, the City of Iowa City not only is not turning off water, they are actually turning on water in residences where it had been turned off. “You’ve got to be washing your hands,” the person in the Water Division told me when we talked
He’s right, of course. Keep washing your hands.
Good news. Organizations acting in unexpected ways—showing the kindness, concern, and compassion we often hope for and often don’t encounter.
The last month brought drastic changes to our world and nation, to our city, our congregation, and our individual lives. As we’ve struggled to keep up with it all, we have been left fearful and worried, anxious and confused, and wondering what will come next.
Those actually might be just the attitudes that we need in order to truly grasp the good news of the resurrection that comes to us this day.
The Easter story begins with everything as it used to be. A new day is dawning as days always have. Two women approach the tomb where the One in whom they once found life is now presumably lying quite dead, because that’s the result of crucifixion—death.
Everything is as you might expect it to be.
Everything is “normal.”
We come closer, however, and find things are not as normal as they seem to be. Something is different.
The difference is not that the stone, sealed by the Roman guards who stand in front of the tomb, is rolled away. An earthquake could do that.
The difference is not that a messenger of God appears on the scene—for it is just possible that God’s messengers can be found in all sorts of surprising, unexpected places.
Here’s the difference: Jesus is nowhere to be seen.
With Mary Magdalene and the “other” Mary, we hear again the Easter morning news about Jesus: “He is not here.”
This is all the explanation they ever get.
This is all the explanation we ever get.
“He is not here. He has been raised.”
We aren’t told how.
We aren’t told when.
Nobody ever knew exactly what happened because nobody was there to see it. But, as Frederick Buechner wrote: “It hardly matters how the body of Jesus came to be missing, because in the last analysis what convinced the people he had risen from the dead was not the absence of his corpse but his living presence.”
On Easter morning, everything is out of place. The risen Christ is not where he belongs. In spite of all of the efforts of the authorities, in spite of the vigilance of the guards, in spite of the stone, Jesus is not where we would expect him to be—dead in the tomb.
Of course, it is surprising and puzzling and confusing—as our lives are today.
It is also just another case of Jesus overstepping his boundaries, not staying where he should be: talking with a Samaritan woman and others on the margins of society; making outrageous claims to be the light of the world, the resurrection and the life; riding into Jerusalem as part of a joyful procession that mocked the power of Rome and angered those who considered themselves in charge.
And on Easter morning, everyone thinks that he belongs to the realm of the dead. Even his followers go back to look for him there.
But Jesus is not in his place. He will no longer be put where people want him to be.
And with the leader out of his place, it will not be long before the followers are out of place as well.
It starts with the women.
The two Marys listen as the risen Christ says: “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” The sisters, or course were already encountering the risen Christ.
These women, the first to see the risen Christ, are sent as the first to bring good news to others. They are witnesses to the resurrection. They are apostles equal to the men in their experience and their calling. And they are out of place. For centuries the church tried to get them back in their place, but we are always confronted by these stories.
Not only are the women and Jesus out of their places as of Easter, but as others soon began to understand, after the resurrection, everyone standing out on the edges of life finds a new place—included in the love of God. As of Easter, everything is out of place—and that is good news.
It’s been a difficult time. And there are no signs that we will soon get back to where we were. So how can we announce the joyful good news of Easter in such times?
Long before this pandemic began, the resurrection proclaimed the incredible news that life has changed, things have been moved around, and will never really be the same again. “Sunset to sunrise changes now,” is how Clement of Alexandria tried to describe it in the early 3rd century. All of creation is not just new, but different.
And, yes, we are different. “You have been raised with Christ,” Paul wrote to the early Christians in Colossae. And as a result, we should “seek the things that are above.” Now, of course, Paul is not talking about being so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly use. Instead, he invites us to look beyond what is readily apparent.
We who have been raised with Christ will not be bound by old ways of thinking and acting and living. As we move forward into a changed world and a challenging future, we will find new meaning and new purpose for life through acts of compassion, mercy, and healing, in the continuing quest for justice and peace, in the creation of beauty, the pursuit of truth. And most likely we will be out of step with those who want the world to be as it once was.
For we have grown tired of a world in which so many find medical care unaffordable or inaccessible.
We have grown tired of a world of racial prejudice that reveals itself in the devastation this pandemic is bringing to African American communities.
We have grown tired a world in which so many people live paycheck to paycheck and are finding their world collapsing around them.
We have grown tired with “normal” and we realize, as Bruce Cockburn sang, “The trouble with normal is it always gets worse.”
To those of us still trying to find our way in this new world—to all of us really—Easter does not give us the assurance that everything will be put back in its usual place. Our lives are constantly changing. Through those changes, and in those changes, we may yet discover God is with us in new and astonishing ways.
We may yet discover new and astonishing ways to bring God’s love to others.
Things are out of place.
Things will be out of place.
Jesus will not be contained by a tomb.
We will not be bound by old ways of thinking and acting and living. New meaning and new purpose for life can be found even now as we will search for them through acts of love, compassion and mercy, in the continuing quest for justice and peace.
We follow the One who was never in his place; we follow in the way of Jesus Christ who would never stay put. Following means that we, too, will be out of place. We will do the unexpected, for that is the resurrected life. And most likely we will be out of step with those who want the world to be as it once was, those who are clinging tightly to the power of the few.
Still, we will be those who love, who live, who give.
Because Christ is risen, everything has changed—even our very lives.
We go on, no longer in our places, following into new life, rejoicing each day in the God of creation and the new creation that is Easter.