Easter Meditation – April 12, 2020
St. Paul’s Congregational Church
Jeremiah 31:1 – 6; Matthew 28:1 – 10
This Lenten season and Holy Week have been unlike anything we’ve ever experienced or could even imagine. It feels like a lifetime ago when Iah, Bev, and I met to plan out our worship services for the season - what the musical offerings would be, the scripture readings, the theme for each week. We looked ahead to the great festival of Easter – the Lent/Easter Tower was published, we had the Easter bulletins ordered, the notice about memorial flowers was done, we were checking the supply of plastic eggs for our traditional egg hunt, we were receiving contributions for our Sunday School Lenten effort of providing bees through Heifer Project: it all seemed so normal. The first and second Sundays of Lent went as planned but wow, everything changed. We cancelled worship for Lent 3 as news of the pandemic spread – as horrifying numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths began to come in. Nothing was normal any more. Far from it.
We went to work figuring out how we could still have worship on Sunday morning, realizing that this experience wasn’t going to end soon– probably not at least until after Easter - and like so many churches, we experimented with on-line services. And we did it! Sure, some bumps in the road but we were gathering on Sunday mornings – from home. We even have a virtual coffee hour – it’s so good to see each others’ faces, to hear each others’ voices, to be together. Then during Holy Week we held a Tenebrae service on Good Friday – again, on-line – it was a lovely worship experience.
Through all of this, though, schools were are, people are working from home, non-essential businesses are closing, people have been laid off from jobs - we’re all experiencing an unexpected disruption to our lives – we’re so out of our routines. We’re hoping and living and grieving all at the same time. These are days of anxiety, of mourning losses of friends and neighbors, facing empty grocery shelves – seeing pictures of an empty Times Square and seeing pictures of horrendous crowding in hospital emergency rooms – the range of emotions is almost unbearable. When will this end, even as the numbers keep rising.
And what about Easter? How can we celebrate Easter? How can we celebrate Easter when our church is empty? We’re afraid – we are so ready for a light at the end of this dark time. And, yes, this Easter celebration today is so different, isn’t it.
Well, friends, today our sanctuary may be empty, but our church is not. WE ARE the church – we’re more than a building – we know that. We are gathered together as the Body of Christ right here, right now, connected by the God who loves us all. No virus, no lockdown, nothing can separate us from the love of God – and no virus or no lockdown or anything else in all creation can keep us from the great festival of Easter – the celebration that Christ has risen from the dead.
Maybe this year we celebrate Easter differently.
Not with a big service. Not with the decorations, the lilies, and instrumentalists, the trumpets.
Not with a big coffee hour or big family party. Not with the ham, the egg hunt, the wine and the close fellowship.
Not with the new dresses, new shoes, the taking of the annual family photos.
Maybe this year we celebrate Easter differently.
Maybe we gather with only the closest of family in our homes. Maybe we gather by facetime, zoom, the telephone. Maybe we wave to our neighbors – maybe we decorate our doors with symbols of Easter – maybe we draw on our sidewalks.
We wait. We pray. Maybe some of us hide, hoping the faith outweighs the fear.
But maybe we hear from God, see God in places we never thought we would on Easter Sunday: in our own homes.
Yes – we’re living in a time of great anxiety – just as the followers of Jesus must have felt between Friday night and Sunday. Yes, maybe we celebrate Easter differently – just as the disciples did – alone, in the silence, hoping the faith outweighs the fear.
The very first Easter was not in a crowded worship space with singing and praising – those disciples were locked in their house, alone in their homes, lost and afraid – afraid that the Romans would come after them. Wondering if all the miracles, the joy they’d experienced in Jesus presence was gone, never to be experienced again. Wondering what they would do now…..was it all a dream that was over? Jesus had said he’d return - I wonder if they dared to believe that would happen, that the long night would be over and morning would come again.
It was the women, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, who went to the tomb at dawn after the sabbath and met the angel of the Lord who told them, do not be afraid – he is not here – for he has risen as he said. Go and tell the disciples that he has risen from the dead – he is going before you to Galilee – there you will see him. The women departed quickly with fear and great joy – and Jesus met them. They came up and took hold of his feet and worshipped them and heard him say again, “Do not be afraid.”
Back in their hiding places, the disciples were still filled with anxiety as they began to process all that had happened. They really didn’t know what was next, but I suspect they had begun to realize God would really be with them as the “next” unfolded.
Friends, that’s what we’re called to do now; trust that God is with us as the “next” unfolds as the long night is over and morning has broken.
This daring belief unites us over time and distance today: that after a while, when it is safe for all people, we will come out, gathering together, singing and shouting the good news that God brings life even out of death, that love always has the final say. But we can say this today, right now, right here: God brings life even out of death and that love always has the final say.
Maybe this year, we celebrate Easter differently.
The ministry of the church can be, will be, must be, carried out in homes and relationships, in the smallest of settings, where we live our daily lives. This is how it was in the beginning and these days we’re seeing that happen too – new life coming out of the darkness on Easter morning. We know that our Christian faith is not about social distancing – we know it is about a highly relational kind of love that has been forging community ever since Jesus called his first disciples and put them in relationship with each other. And there is something beautiful about a congregation of any size gathered for worship, shared witness, breathtaking music, the beauty of special flowers, filled pews, a sense of excitement and joy.
But this year is different: our celebration of Jesus’ resurrection is not based on a large gathering – it’s not validated by the presence of a large crowd and it’s not diminished by an empty sanctuary. Our celebration of Jesus’ resurrection is an affirmation that Easter cannot be canceled, the resurrection has happened – the great mystery of our faith remains: Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. No virus, indeed nothing – can overcome this awesome good news.
Our celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, of this good news, comes as we care for each other, as we check in on each other, as we help each other with groceries, as we stop and clap for the healthcare workers each evening at 7pm, as we write notes, as we participate in meal trains for hospital workers in the ER, in the Intensive Care units, as we make phone calls, as we do grocery shopping for each other, as we make soup and leave a bowl on our neighbor’s porch to share, as we increase our donations to Food Banks, as we put teddy bears in our windows so children in our neighborhoods can go on “bear hunts” as they take walks outside on these lovely days, as we offer prayers for all those who must work in those essential services putting themselves in harm’s way – medical workers, grocery store clerks, delivery people, mail carriers, police, fire fighters, social service agencies, those people often at the bottom of the economic scale who must work, who must ride the trains to serve you and me, and to put food on the dinner table for their families. The Risen Christ is among all of us.
The risen Christ meets us in our homes, along the paths of our lives, and in the midst of the greatest challenges of our time. The question isn’t whether Christ is risen or even whether Easter will be celebrated. Of course Easter will be celebrated!
The only question is how we will celebrate and participate in the resurrection miracle in a moment when the truth is more powerful than ever. Because Christ is alive and has gone ahead of us, the ministry of the church can be carried out in homes, through our relationships, in unselfish acts of generosity and love. That is how it was in the beginning and how it needs to be in this moment.
This year, Christians around the world will experience an Easter Sunday unlike any other. I wonder, what kind of unique compelling worship and witness can we offer to the Risen Christ this Easter? As we gather in homes all around our communities, indeed in the world, as we join together virtually and in the power of a love that will not let us go, how might we offer a very different but unmistakably beautiful witness to the resurrection of Jesus?
A global pandemic has upended and forever changed our ordinary days of living: the rhythms that center us, the communities that sustain us, the physical spaces where we gather in worship. We experience the fear of isolation, the claustrophobia of quarantine. We mourn the physical absence of family and friends to comfort us in these uncertain times.
But no catastrophe, no virus, can change the truth of Easter: out of the dark night of this pandemic, Easter hope rises, marked not by a return to the old normal, but to a new normal transformed. This Easter let us own and live out this life changing truth: God is walking with us right now. Christ our Lord is risen! And may our response be: He is risen indeed! Praise God! Alleluia! Amen!