“Easter Happens Where Life Happens”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.
5But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”
8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.
9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” (NRSV)
Because of Covid-19, most of you are hunkered down in your homes this Easter morning. Next to seeing you all in person, the thing I miss the most today is the outdoor sunrise service. In my opinion, there is no more appropriate place to worship, especially on Easter, than outside on a vibrant, spring morning, beneath the natural light of the heavens, whether they’re shimmering with that pale, silky blue that heralds a clear day, or hanging low and gray, heavy with the promise of rain.
I love the sound of a multitude of human voices singing Alleluias, but if there exists purer joy than a chorus of mockingbirds, robins, cardinals, wrens, and finches, I have yet to hear it.
Outside, there are no doors to be locked, no pews to claim as one’s own. Our feet rest on the earth herself. Our faces feel the chilly bite of unfiltered air. When that air carries pollen from flowers and fruit trees, it may irritate eyes and noses, but it also bears a sweet perfume that cannot be bought. Such is grace.
Inside church buildings, we tiptoe carefully back and forth across fixed aisles. We walk with stiff reverence through hallways and doorways, because it’s “God’s house.” (How can cathedrals of forest, hill, and coastline be anything other than God’s house? And how did we ever imagine God being too holy for our gladness and humor?)
Outside, we travel far more open pathways. We wind our way from city to town, from field to hearth, from mountain top to seashore at the beckoning of beauty, at the demands of danger, by the necessities of appetite and season, and by the inspiration of our dreams.
Now, I am truly grateful for church buildings. Still, when they become more sacred that the God we worship, when they separate us from neighbor and earth, they become idols. Inside them we tend to control our experiences of and our intimacy with God like we control a thermostat. Outside, though, Mystery, in all its feral liberty, slips up on us, and surprises us.
On the first Easter morning, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” creep to the tomb at daybreak to hold each other in their grief. As they stand there, feet wet with dew, the sky splashed with orange and purple, the usually-solid, trustworthy earth begins to tremble. If their own knees get weak, if their own stomachs turn, if they drop whatever they’re carrying, they at least remain conscious, unlike the Roman guards who collapse to the ground in lifeless heaps. The women then see something that has come from God, something with a presence and a voice. It tells them that Jesus is alive and they will see him in Galilee. Gathering their baggage and their wits, the women head north.
“Suddenly,” says Matthew, “Jesus met them.”
He stands in their path. He invades their bewilderment. He interrupts their early morning walk along a dusty road redolent with manure and crammed with Passover travelers chattering on about the ungodly profits of the moneychangers and the uncertain outlook on sheep futures.
The women see Jesus’s face, his body, his wounds. They hear his voice. They touch his feet. They smell, well, God only knows what they smell.
The risen Christ invades our paths much more organically and memorably when we’re in our natural habitats for one simple reason—out there is where we live. So, for all the benefits and joys of church buildings, if what we do within their walls fails to connect with who we are and what we do beyond them, we may never recognize the risen Jesus as anything more than some theological precept about which to argue, or worse, some convenient tool for controlling others. That’s what Emperor Constantine saw in Jesus. And the seismic upheaval the Church now feels is one symptom of the necessary process of death and resurrection as we sober up from our 1700-year bender as the world’s most powerful, state-sponsored religion.
Because Easter is a major movement in God’s opus of Incarnation, we have to make peace with the fact that dis-orientation always precedes re-orientation. Friday always precedes Sunday. We have to learn to remain awake and alert to God’s presence and voice in the midst of the earth-quaking disruptions that inevitably occur in our bodies, in our minds, in our relationships, and in the ever-fluid world around us.
If who we are and what we do in church buildings fails to connect with who we are and what we do beyond them, then our sanctuaries are empty tombs, and we’re just armed guards lying on the ground, anesthetized by fear when the earth shifts and God speaks.
Easter can be a stumbling block for the Church because our proclamation is not only unprovable, it’s indescribable.
But it is livable! Easter happens where life happens.
According to Matthew, Sunday’s empty tomb is not the place of Easter witness. Galilee is. Both the angel and Jesus say that resurrection experiences will happen where Jesus’ work began, along the rocky shores of the lake, where crowds gather, where fishermen sit in their wooden boats, beneath bright blue skies and a hot Palestinian sun, mending, with calloused hands, nets made of flax and linen.
As much a verb as a noun, Easter is more effectively demonstrated than declared. It breaks through in those moments and in those seasons when the earth quakes, and our knees buckle, and nothing makes sense anymore—at least not until we return fully to our bodies and see, feel, taste, smell, and hear the world in all its glorious beauty and imperfection.
It seems to me that Easter is not about believing the unbelievable. It’s about living a fullness and a wholeness that we can’t create for ourselves. It’s about trusting that for all the brokenness handed down to us and all the brokenness we so willfully cause and permit, God’s love and forgiveness have the power to renew and restore all things. Easter meets us, sometimes suddenly and vividly, as when we hold a newborn or hear a loved one say, “I forgive you.” (How could anyone deserve such gifts?)
Sometimes it’s more subtle, an awareness that dawns on us, reveals itself over time, as when we age into a gratitude that borders on tearful for something as ordinary as birdsong, or when we realize that, finally, we not only can, or even want to, but we have forgiven that old adversary. (What spiritual tectonic plates shifted and awakened in us these new perceptions of and propensities for grace?)
Easter experiences don’t “prove” what the Bible and our theologies proclaim. Easter experiences confront us, “suddenly,” in routine, day-to-day moments when our fear and pride dissolve and our lives are drenched with a newness we did not create and cannot earn. So, to the extent that our decent, orderly, and carefully-scripted worship services prepare us to go outside, to go to Galilee (wherever that might be for each of us), and be surprised by Jesus, our time spent in sanctuaries is time well-spent.
Even though we’re locked down at home because of some pandemic looming at our doorsteps like the tenth plague on Egypt, we live miraculous lives. God is always Eastering us toward new understandings of human existence, new capacities for compassion, and new horizons of grace.
May you live today and all days with grateful and generous abandon. And know that even now God is revealing the life-transforming gift of Resurrection to you and through you.