April 12, 2020
First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Christ is risen.
We gather at the end of a Holy Week different from any other on an Easter Sunday different from any other.
Every year has unique features. Christians have observed Holy Week and Easter in periods of persecution, during armed conflict and war, and while plague ravaged the land.
Still Easter 2020; Easter in the age of COVID-19 differs widely and wildly from any Easter we and most followers of Jesus have celebrated.
No egg hunts. No visits with family. No trips to restaurants. No crowded gatherings around a table straining under the weight of a feast. No new clothes or bonnets for many of us.
We gather in separate places today. Our church building stands empty for the moment. It does so not out of fear. As such buildings do across our country and around the world, that temporarily empty building on the corner of 149th and 15th offers a profound witness to our faith. It proclaims that we are a people of life even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. It represents an incredible act of revolutionary love, amazing grace, and spiritual solidarity. Thanks be to God.
Dr. William Brown of Columbia Theological Seminary points out that this year’s Easter celebration with a temporarily empty building may be among the most biblical Easters we have experienced.[i] The Easter proclamation of resurrection begins with the discovery of the empty tomb.
After the crucifixion, early on the first day of the week, in the darkness, John’s Gospel tells us that Mary Madgalene went to the tomb. Heart broken, soul sick, spirit sore, she made a lonely, courageous journey.
She went to see where they had placed her teacher, her friend. She went to pay her respects even after her death. She went because nothing else made sense.
At the tomb, she found the stone rolled aside. What more indignity can there be, she must have wondered? She went to get others. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Peter and the disciple “whom Jesus loved,” return to the tomb with her. Entering they find emptiness. No body of Jesus; only the cloths from his burial.
Each Gospel tells a slightly different version of the encounter with the empty tomb. They all share two common features. Women first. Women went to the tomb first. Women become the first to tell the good news. While the number varies from gospel to gospel, it is always small. Large numbers of followers did not cram together as close as they could on that day of resurrection. It began with a tomb emptied of death and women.
We know not how the resurrection of Jesus happened. No one witnessed God raising Jesus.
The resurrection of the followers of Jesus proved something more of a process. It did not happen in an instant. As the Rev. Denise Anderson notes, the “women who were first at the tomb to find it empty were rocked to their core. But even when they shared the news, the ones with whom they shared it weren’t instantly changed for hearing it. They hardly even believed it.”[ii]
The Rev. Anderson goes on: for the first followers of Jesus on that day of resurrection, “there was still grief. There was still despair. There was still anxiety. There was still waiting. Wondering. Worrying.”[iii] But. God had raised Jesus. God’s work had been accomplished. Christ was risen. Christ is risen.
Perhaps more starkly than have other Easters, this day reminds us that we live in the tension of believing in resurrection even as we feel keenly the impact of suffering and death. Much of what gave us balance and equilibrium in life has been smashed off kilter. We grieve. Uncertainty grips us. We find ourselves in a similar position to the women and the first followers of Jesus.
And yet, we have the witness not only of Mary and the other women who went to the tomb. We have the witness of women through the ages … and some men, too. People who lived as Jesus calls us to live; people who loved who as Jesus called us to love. People who though stricken with grief and filled with fear, lived and loved. And in the living and in the loving, they encountered the risen Christ. As we live and as we love following Jesus, we too have encountered the risen Christ. We encounter the risen Christ now. We will encounter the risen Christ in the future.
Grief and doubt and fear do not deny the resurrection. They cannot.
Grief and doubt and fear do not indicate the absence of hope and faith and love; they are fellow travelers. They go together, as the Rev. Ben Perry notes.[iv]
Christ is risen, and we mourn for those who have died and we ache for those who are ill and we endure heartbreak for those who are abused, neglected, and forgotten.
Christ is risen, and COVID-19 grips our city and God’s world.
Christ is risen, and we can love one another.
Christ is risen, and there is work to do to ensure that all people in our society have access to safe homes, meaningful and safe work, health care, good food, and the necessities of living.
Christ is risen, and the Matthew 25 vision invites us to make sure that the least of the human family, the people pushed to the margins, receive our attention and our care.
Christ is risen, and the resurrection reminds us that the worst things are never the last things.[v]
Though we tremble at the tomb, though alleluias quaver on our lips, Christ is risen. This Easter day and every day may we know the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu:
Goodness is stronger than evil;
Love is stronger than hate;
Light is stronger than darkness;
Life is stronger than death;
Victory is ours through Him who loves us.[vi]
Christ is risen.
People of the empty tomb, people of the temporarily empty building,
Christ is risen!
[ii] This comes from a Facebook by the Rev. Tawnya Denise Anderson, coordinator for Racial and Intercultural Justice, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), on April 12, 2020.
[iv] This and the next several paragraphs are inspired by words written by the Rev. Ben Perry and posted on Facebook.
[v] Thanks to the Rev. Dr. Michael Granzen for this image.
[vi] Desmond Tutu, “Victory Is Ours” in An African Prayer Book (London: Hodder and Stoughton Ltd, 1995), p. 80.