I can’t think of any place I’d rather be. Can you?
Easter doesn’t lend itself to pageant tableaux the way Christmas does, with its colorful cast of characters: Mary, Joseph, the baby, three wise men… the innkeeper, the shepherds, the sheep and a giggling host of angels. No wonder we put our children in bathrobes, smudge their faces with charcoal or glitter and put on a show. We have made a major production of the nativity, and then added flourishes of our own creation: cards, carols, garlands, and the Grinch.
But Easter is entirely different. It starts in the dark, in a graveyard, with the stone rolled back from a donated tomb. Three women—Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome—sidle in at dawn on Sunday to anoint their teacher’s body for burial, too rushed on Friday by the coming Sabbath to complete their necessary ablutions. There is an earthquake in one account, quiet in some, shouting in others, confusion all around, and fear… always fear.
But it is not a major production at all, “and the minor attractions we have created around it—the bunnies and baskets and bonnets and eggs—have so little to do with (the action), that they neither add nor subtract very much. … It’s not really even much of a story when you come right down to it,” writes Frederick Buechner, “and that is of course the power of it. It doesn’t have the ring of great drama,” he adds. “It has the ring of truth.”
And so here we are this morning, sidling in as well, many of us weary from visiting hospitals or graves ourselves, worried about politics and the pandemic, wondering about work—too much to bear, the missed opportunities, or both, tending by habit at home to relationships or systems that wound, and hoping against hope that there is Light and Life and Love at the end of the tunnel.
…Long before this winter’s snow
I dreamt of this day’s sunny glow
And thought somehow my pain would pass
With winter’s pain, and peace like grass
Would simply grow. (But) The pain’s not gone.
It’s still as cold and hard and long
As lonely pain has ever been,
It cuts so deep and fear within.
Long before this winter’s snow
I ran from pain, looked high and low
For some fast way to get around
Its hurt and cold. I’d have found,
If I had looked at what was there,
That things don’t follow fast or fair.
That life goes on, and times do change,
And grass does grow despite life’s pains.
Long before this winter’s snow
I thought that this day’s sunny glow,
The smiling children and growing things
And flowers bright were brought by spring.
Now, I know the sun does shine,
That children smile, and (it’s) from the dark, cold, grime
(That) A flower comes. It groans, yet sings,
And through its pain, its peace begins. (Mary Ann Bernard, Resurrection)
Resurrection comes. When a person sees himself clearly, perhaps for the first time in his life, and he moves away from behavior that hurts others and himself, that is resurrection. When a couple, long married, realizes that decades of small betrayals and half-truths have transformed their once rich relationship into something dead and dry, and instead of giving up, they let something new and more honest be born, that is resurrection. When an artist dejectedly faces an empty page or a pot of paint, but then allows a spark to take her imagination into some new way of seeing or shaping reality, that is resurrection. And when a scientist goes to sleep with a similarly blank page and wakes to a new equation or insight into the life of a cell or the universe, that is resurrection.
Resurrection comes… not always when we pray for it or desire it… not always as we ask for it or expect it… not always how we think it should appear. But it comes. Wherever we are, God is always running toward us.
Some would have us cynical and disappointed most of the time, angry that in the midst of life, there is death. But Jesus tells another story. He says: in defeat and disappointment, even in dying, there is more life. Not necessarily more days, not necessarily easy solutions, not necessarily power or credit or cure, but always more life.
When Mary Magdalene and the other women stole through the streets at daybreak on the way to the tomb, all they expected was death. They planned to wash Jesus’s body, which had been hastily dragged from the cross before sundown, and they brought oils and spices for their work.
Mary Magdalene had been somebody when Jesus was around. She was no longer called a sinner or made the subject of people’s gossip. The others began to look her in the eye, instead of down their noses at her. The teacher Jesus saw in Mary her essential self, and that helped her feel strong and whole. But this morning Mary was like a corpse, on her way to take care of somebody else who was dead, sure of nothing now, except that she had lost everything, again.
Then “as they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’”
Then Mary left with her friends, and later she ran right into the arms of the living God, but no one believed her. How could someone like Mary Magdalene have such good news to tell, the leaders—the disciples—grumbled narrowly, true to form. Even on Easter Sunday, they sink to judgment and selfishness, probably out of fear, and we know something about that, too. But Mary is the point—this condemned and excluded one who runs to God, because she realizes that God has been running to find her, all this time. And that is resurrection.
Twenty-five years ago, Kelly Clem pulled up to the front of the church she served as pastor, Goshen United Methodist Church, in Piedmont, Alabama. She and her two daughters, Hannah and Sarah, climbed out of the car and went into the church to begin a rehearsal for the Palm Sunday Passion play.
In the middle of their rehearsal, a powerful storm erupted and a tornado hit the church head on. In a matter of seconds, the church was turned to rubble. In the eerie silence that followed, Kelly realized that the roof of the church had caved in on everybody there. Hannah, four-years-old, who only minutes before had been standing a few feet away from her mother was now nowhere to be seen. Frantic, Kelly began digging through the debris, and found Hannah’s foot protruding at an odd angle, and cold. They got the little girl out and a rescue worker took her away. Kelly’s husband Dale left work and met their daughter at the hospital.
Minutes later, Kelly turned to find Sarah, who was shaken but O.K., escaping with only minor scratches. The next hour or so passed in a blur of looking for others, until Dale got through to Kelly: Hannah didn’t make it, he said. That night 20 people died in the church and 86 more were seriously wounded. And this all happened leading up to Palm Sunday. Most of Holy Week was filled with funerals of friends and family, including Hannah’s, gathering at borrowed churches across town. Kelly later said that as she lay in bed that week, bone tired and emotionally numb, she was sure that Goshen Church was gone. It must have been buried with the rest of them.
But as Saturday approached, the phone began to ring. Would there be an Easter service at Goshen Church, people asked. Should we gather? Could we? Kelly seized some energy from somewhere and said, “Yes. We’ll have a sunrise service at Goshen Church, in the midst of the broken mess,” she told them. “We’ll be there on Sunday, waiting for Easter.”
That morning at dawn, Kelly assembled in darkness with 200 people beside what was left of the building. In the center of the property, where the altar would have been, someone took two ceiling joists and nailed together a cross. At around 7:00, the sun spilled over the horizon in colors of purple and pink, which her sister noted were Hannah’s favorite.
With her face swollen, her heart broken, and her shoulder in a brace, Kelly looked out at all the faces there and said, “I can’t think of any place I’d rather be. Can you?” Then she opened the Bible and began to read: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are made more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” And that was sermon enough.
I can’t explain the resurrection, but I am a witness to it. Look at Mary Magdalene. Look at that momma in Piedmont, Alabama. Look at your family in recovery. Look at the scientists who willed a vaccine into existence in months. Look at the folks waking up to their racism and turning from their death-dealing ways. Look at the legislation that cuts child poverty in half.
Look at a church that says all people are worthy whatever your color, wherever you live, whoever you fall in love with, and however much you have or don’t have. Look: the tomb is empty, he is risen. Look: the Word has become flesh again and moved into your neighborhood, from Galilee to Gaithersburg, and every town in between. And in your precious heart God has found herself a home. Right smack in the middle of our lives, where we know we are tired and we feared we were done, our strengthening voices have found their Easter song: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!