Sermon for Easter Sunday, April 12, 2020
Prepared for the Television/Online Easter Service of the Word
Texts: Jeremiah 31:1-6; Matthew 28:1-10
In the name of the risen Christ. Amen.
For me Easter Sunday was always the church at its strongest and best.
- Pews full of people on the best attended Sunday of the year
- Music triumphant and glorious, familiar Easter hymns augmented by guest musicians, and here at Trinity streamers twirling in the air above us
- Easter lilies and other flowers flowing over and around the table and throughout the church
- On a perfect Easter Sunday a big sun in a clear bright sky producing a warm spring day
- The festival at the church followed by an Easter brunch full of family and friends and chocolate cream filled eggs and desserts and pies tasting especially sweet and delicious after long Lenten fasts
- All of this giving way, especially to me as a preacher after the services of Holy Week, to a long nap
When the ban on public gatherings, closure of non-essential businesses, and stay-at-home advisories first hit, it dawned on Christians that these directives most likely would overlap with Easter. Christians began struggling with the very real possibility of cancelled Easter services and postponed family celebrations.
In response, theologians quickly sprang into action.
Some suggested we delay Easter Sunday until the first Sunday we can be back together again. Others suggested we designate Pentecost Sunday as Easter Sunday –combining the resurrection of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit into one large blowout festival Sunday. My first instinct was to agree with those who thought we might celebrate the liturgy of the Great Three Days in whatever week we can be back together gather again – that these three days would be, like they always are, our Christian Passover, out of death and into new life leading to Easter Sunday when Sunday worship can safely resume at the church.
But … but I wonder if Easter-delayed feeds into the myth, and sentimentality, of what Easter Sunday has become, instead of what it is really all about?
Is Easter Sunday really about celebrating packed churches, delicious brunches, and – in the Northern Hemisphere – a gateway into spring? Is Easter Sunday the pretense that if even for just an hour in church on Easter morning, or on Easter afternoon with family and friends, that the world is magically reborn, resurrected, and all is made right?
Or, could it be, that we need to celebrate Easter today, because it is perhaps the most honest Easter most of us will have celebrated? No illusions. No pretenses. No distractions on this day.
Instead, in a very real way, for people laid off, unemployed and broke …
for sick, dying, and grieving people …
for people overworked, under-equipped, and terrified …
for lonely, weary, and isolated people …
for you and for me …
The good news truth is laid bare:
Easter Sunday has never been about a packed church!
Easter Sunday IS always about the empty tomb!
In fact, on this Easter Sunday 2020, might we see in our empty church building the empty tomb of Christ? Instead of despairing about what we are missing today, might we celebrate what we gain today as followers of Jesus Christ!
What we gain today: is the hope of Jesus Christ who defeated death. The hope of Jesus Christ who speaks life into the very reality of death. The hope, that death is not the final answer.
The empty tomb proclaims this hope. The hope that Jesus Christ lives. The hope that the betrayal, arrest, abandonment, torture, mocking, crucifixion on the cross, and the death Jesus experienced was ultimately no match for the life, love, forgiveness, reconciliation, and resurrection God speaks to the world!
With this hope, we can see our empty church today as a sign that Christ lives. The church is empty, because the sacrificial spirit of Jesus Christ is alive and leading people to stay home and make personal sacrifices, these sacrifice not made for the majority of people who are asymptomatic and will experience only mild symptoms – but made for the small minority who are most vulnerable, and who will suffer the most, and even die.
Now, at this point, I should be clear about the hope we celebrate on this day.
Easter Sunday hope, is not the false hope that everything will turn out Ok. It is not the false hope that things will end up exactly the way we want it to, or that we will return to normal as if nothing ever happened.
In our First Reading today, from the book of Jeremiah, we find a message of hope to a people forever changed by the trauma of national defeat and captivity. Jeremiah’s audience was a people scattered and torn apart by invading empires, and who lived in exile far from their homeland.
Author and Professor Juliana Claassens, describes the people this way: They were “not a company of strong and mighty soldiers, nor were they powerful kings or queens. Rather, they were a company of vulnerable, wounded, individuals who as Kathleen O’Connor has so poetically expressed, are “limping homeward.”
It was to this broken people limping homeward, forever changed by the catastrophe that had destroyed their way of life, Jeremiah proclaimed the hope of God’s resurrection work:
- Again, I will build you, and you shall be built, said God through Jeremiah.
- Again, you shall take your tambourines, and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers … God said to those who were mourning.
- Again, you shall plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria. The planters shall plant and shall enjoy the fruit … God said to those most likely starving and dying of hunger.
The hope Jeremiah proclaimed was not a return to pre-exile days. The hope the prophet proclaimed, was that though marked and scarred by trauma, God was leading God’s people to a new future with hope. In Jeremiah’s prophecy, God was still with them, and God announced God would lead them to a future of creation, dancing, and feasting.
Friends, this is our hope today!
Though some alive just months ago are now dead because of the virus … though we are limping forward into an unknown future forever changed by the pandemic … our hope is in Christ who lives who goes before us to prepare us for new futures where we will again build, and dance and feast.
Professor Barbara Rossing points out that in Matthew’s Gospel the same Greek verb for Jesus “going ahead” of the women and the men to Galilee, is the same Greek word used to describe that the star would “go ahead” of the magi and lead them to the infant Jesus (Matthew 2:9). This is significant, because the angel’s message to the women at the tomb is less about “where” Jesus was, and more about “what” the risen Jesus was up to.
Jesus was alive leading, guiding, and directing his loved ones in new directions. Jesus was alive leading the terrified women and frightened men into a new future. Jesus was alive directing his sisters and brothers out of the graveyard out of their hiding places, and into life.
Today, in the hope of an empty tomb, in the hope of an empty church, in the hope that Jeremiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus Christ … we look to Christ who is alive, leading us to a new future.
Because Christ lives, we have the hope that … again, we as a people will gather to celebrate Easter … again, we as a people we will gather for family dinners and family celebrations … again, we as people, we will meet together to laugh, and cry, and share humanity with one another.
But when we do, things will be changed. As humans, the lived reality of the virus will have changed us. As disciples of Jesus, alive in faith in Christ, the resurrection will have changed us. In resurrection faith, we will be changed by a risen Savior, alive, and who continues to go before us.
- A savior risen and leading us … so that when we are together again, we will build … this time building new structures, and new ways of being together as individuals, as races, and as nations that are kinder, more inclusive, and more just and equitable
- A savior alive and directing us … so that when we are together again, we will take our tambourines and dance … this time making music and dancing in inclusive ways that welcome, receive, and celebrate the diversity of cultures and customs not in an hierarchy of superior and inferior – but all as equal co-creators of beauty and joy.
- A savior resurrected and guiding us … so that when we are together again, we will plant vineyards and fields… this time, making sure that the resources of the earth are raised and grown in ways gentle on the earth, and shared equitably and fully with all the world’s population so that all participate in the bountiful harvest of the earth’s resources.
Though physically distanced today, this is the hope that unites us. With organ and instrumentalists, with voices singing as loud as we can, let us sing our Easter hope: because Christ lives we live! In the resurrection of Christ we are changed out of our realities of sin and death, and into new futures of hope, possibility, and peace!
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Christ is risen, indeed. Alleluia!