Alleluia! Christ is Risen! Easter A – April 16, 2017

[RCL] Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-18

We, the faithful in Christ, gather this morning, not just with our friends and families, but also with Christians around the world and across time, joyfully proclaiming what is perhaps the most ancient creed in Christendom: Christ is risen! For the next fifty days, this great and powerful Easter proclamation will mark our liturgy, define our purpose, and affirm our most deeply held belief.

Of course, proclaiming that joyful phrase today amidst the beautiful flowers, the gorgeous music, and in the company of those we love comes easily for most, if not all of us. And yet, for as much as we enjoy the more festive aspects of Easter, the truth is that these things, by themselves, don’t tell the whole story.

Along with praise-filled shouts of “Alleluia,” the whole story of Easter also includes shouts of war and hate; of fear and pain; of confusion and misunderstanding. In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom, and in the shadow of war and violence that plague our streets and our planet, these emotions are viscerally familiar to all of us. And although we may lose sight of it here this morning, these emotions also filled the hearts of the faithful on that first Easter morning.

The Gospel of John sets the scene: “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed.” Then, John tells us, she ran to share the news with the others. And while John doesn’t tell us this part himself, when people get news, they don’t typically run unless it’s really good news or really bad news!

Mary, it seems fair to say, is distraught—shocked that the body of her beloved Lord isn’t in the tomb where he had been laid just three days ago. When she reaches the other disciples with the news, they take off running as well, reaching the tomb only to confirm what Mary had told them. They depart, their hopes dashed; their Easter alleluias muted.

This is where Easter ended: The disciples returned home—confused, saddened, and unsure of what would happen next. John tells us that they “as yet…did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”

And who could blame them really? They had put so much trust in Jesus, only to have it squashed by powers and principalities. What were they to do now? Where would they go? Who would they believe in next?  These were the questions that raced through the disciples’ minds as they came to grips with their grief and disappointment.

But Mary wasn’t ready to let go just yet.

Mary stays behind, weeping while she examines the emptiness of the tomb, making sure that no detail or clue goes unseen or unexamined—desperately searching for some shred of evidence; grasping for even the faintest possibility.

Just then, she sees two angels sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying. They ask her why she is weeping and she says, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

We can hear the weight of grief in her voice. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve all had similar moments to the one Mary is experiencing. Moments when we’ve found ourselves desperately searching for God, only to be met with emptiness and sadness. Have you ever come to church, yearning for the peace and comfort of the sacraments, only to find that God doesn’t seem to be there? Has your prayer life ever felt dry and fallow? Have you ever found yourself wondering whether church itself might be futile?

In moments like these, we find ourselves in a kind of spiritual mourning, wondering where Jesus has gone, and why he seems to have been taken away. St. John of the Cross called these moments the “Dark Night of the Soul”—when prayer, sacrament, and community no longer bring comfort, and the transcendence of God’s presence seems to have evaporated.[1]

There is a well-meaning tendency among many Christians—especially those who have never wrestled deeply with their faith—to liken these moments to a kind of spiritual weakness. “If you only prayed a little harder or believed a little deeper or trusted a little more, then everything would be okay,” they tell us. We needn’t look much further than the shelves of our local bookstore for a seemingly endless litany of books offering prescriptions that promise to fix our spiritual life.

But as the Trappist monk and priest Thomas Keating reminds us, “The spiritual journey is not a career or a success story. It is a series of humiliations of the false self that become more and more profound. These make room inside of us for the Holy Spirit to come in and heal.”[2]

In other words, we can’t work our way into God’s good graces because God doesn’t deal in performance evaluations and goals and targets. God doesn’t show up on our time or in a manner of our choosing; and our relationship with God cannot be converted into a checklist or a “how to” guidebook.

This is the lesson that Mary learned on that first Easter, and it’s the one that God is still trying to teach us 2,000 years later. In the midst of her desperate search for clues about what might have happened to Jesus’ body, a man walks by and asks Mary why she is so distraught. And desperately hoping that he would know something she didn’t, she says, “If you know where he is—if you’ve taken him somewhere else—just tell me where and I will take him myself.” If you will just tell me what to do or where to go, I’ll do it! It’s as if she’s saying, “Give me a target! Give me a goal! What are the five simple steps that I need to accomplish?”

And that’s when it happens: Jesus calls her by name! “Mary!” And when she hears it, she is overcome! She cries out, “Rabbouni! Teacher!”

With these words, Mary experiences the very first Easter moment! She realizes that Christ’s difficult and at times unbelievable teachings are true—that what he promised at the Last Supper has come to pass!

Mary’s witness to the first Easter is about far more than beautiful worship and festive celebrations. Mary brings us face to face with the depths of our humanity. Her witness is a mosaic of the human experience—grief and joy; uncertainty and affirmation; depression and determination. This is the true witness of Easter!

Even in the depths of our despair and grief, when things just seem to keep piling up with no end in sight, and even when we just don’t know if we believe it anymore, the God made known to us in Jesus Christ has a way of showing up where we least expect him!

But if we’re not careful, we’ll close the book as if the story ends right here. Mary recognizes the Resurrected Lord and everyone lives happily ever after. But this isn’t the end of the story. In fact, if we keep reading, we realize that Easter isn’t a story at all! It’s a commissioning!

Once Mary recognizes Jesus, he says to her, “…Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” The moment that Mary leaves the garden, the Good News of Easter gets loose and begins to transform the world! Mary bears witness to the fact that, even in the face of death itself, God will have the last word!

Through her first Easter witness, Mary teaches us that grief and joy, uncertainty and affirmation, desperation and determination, are all inescapable parts of our humanity. She teaches us that our lives of faith aren’t about success or opportunities for advancement; rather, they are holy mysteries that will surprise, unsettle, and transform us. But most important of all, she teaches us that in the resurrection of our Lord Christ, we know that love, hope, and peace will ultimately prevail!

And so, in this Eastertide, may we proclaim that Christ is risen, not simply in church, but also in the world around us. May we proclaim it, not simply with our lips, but also with our hands and hearts. And as we live into the joy and promise of Easter, may we go forth into the world, looking for the Resurrected Christ in places we may not expect.

May we search for Christ amidst those who are cast down and rejected; among those who have nobody to care for them; and in the company of those who have never known the loving embrace of friendship. The world needs this now, perhaps more than ever before. But most of all, may we not simply proclaim the Good News, may we also believe it so that the whole world may see Christ in their midst and proclaim, “The Lord is risen indeed!”

Alleluia!

Written by the Rev. Marshall A. Jolly, rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He studied at Transylvania University (BA, American Studies) and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology (MDiv & Certificate in Anglican Studies). His published works include essays on Christian social engagement, theology in the public square, and preaching, appearing most recently in the Journal of Appalachian Studies and the Anglican Theological Review. He is the editor of Modern Metanoia, a preaching resource authored by Millennials, and enjoys exploring the nearby Appalachian foothills with his wife Elizabeth.

[1] See TJ Tetzlaff’s essay for Easter Day (Year C), entitled, “The Unlikely Evangelist” in Modern Metanoia 14 March 2016, http://modernmetanoia.org/2016/03/14/easter-day-c-the-unlikely-evangelist/

[2] Thomas Keating, The Human Condition: Contemplation and Transformation (New York: Paulist Press, 1999), 38.

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Already and not yet, Easter Day (A) – 2014

April 20, 2014

Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-18

Alleluia! Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Grace and peace to you this Easter morning when Christ the morning star is risen indeed.

Christ is risen, come back to us, but is not yet here. Already and not yet.

How can that be? Already and not yet? We proclaim Christ crucified and risen. We proclaim the mystery of faith: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

This morning we proclaim the end of one story and the beginning of another, and the years roll on. How many Easters have you been here? Every year it is the same – the same joyous shout, “I have seen the Lord. Christ is risen!”

And yet, each year we know the story is not finished. Our alleluias get drowned out by other shouts, shouts of war or hate, of fear, of pain or confusion. People still lose their jobs. Relationships, be they between parents and children, or between spouses or friends, relationships still founder and break. People still die. We still get anxious. We still worry. Our hearts still get sick, whether from physical ailments or from the burdens of the world. Dictators still rise and fall, and new ones rise up to take their place. Wars and violence still stalk us.

Yet every year by that ancient formula of the first Sunday after the first full moon after the equinox, Easter arrives, we come and we stand here, and we joyously proclaim:

Alleluia! Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Every year we declare our intention to go on living despite the reality around us because of the greater reality of this day. We go on living and loving, learning and yearning, and Christ is right beside us because of this day.

And Christ will come again. It’s that mysterious feeling of already and not yet. The poet Mary Oliver knows what this cycle is about. Here’s a portion of her poem “In Blackwater Woods”:

“Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.”

Think of Mary Magdalene there in the garden. Three days ago her beloved friend and teacher was torn from her life by a violent mob. She stood on Calvary and watched her teacher die a hideous and shameful death. She had loved him in great measure because of the way he’d loved her. She had held tight to this seemingly mortal man and then she had to let him go. The only saving grace, it seemed, was that his death didn’t take very long. He was probably weak from the beating he had received the night before.

Then there was the desolation of the time after they had rolled that stone in front of the entrance to the borrowed tomb. The finality of that thud was still echoing in her mind as she came to the garden that morning.

Even after she finds the tomb empty and even as she confesses her confusion to the angels, her grief blinds her. Even as Jesus appears, her grief blinds her, and she can’t recognize him. It is only when Jesus calls her by name that she understands that he’s done what he promised.

He had planted in her a once-fiery hope, the hope that she could change, the hope that here in this small community around her, she was not an outcast. When she went to the garden that morning, that fiery hope was a small dying ember, but at the sound of him saying her name, what had been smoldering burst back into flame.

What joy in that moment! How it banished forever the sound of that thudding stone!

Alleluia! Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Life seemed to have suddenly returned to normal in that moment. But it had not, for the next thing Jesus says to her tells her everything had changed. “Do not hold on to me,” he says. In effect: I cannot stay here with you, but I will still be with you.

If she’d looked more closely at him, she might have seen that he had changed. He bore the marks of his ordeal on his body. We know he showed Thomas the nail marks on his hands and feet. We know that Thomas could put his hand in the jagged wound in Christ’s side.

Life is different now. Her teacher had come back, but he bears the physical memory of his treatment at the hands of his beloved creatures. He bears the memory of all that his creatures are capable of, and still he has returned and will soon promise to always be here, although his presence will not be the same flesh-and-blood presence as the sight of him that early morning in the garden.

Life is different now. Christ cannot erase the past. Christ cannot erase pain and suffering because to do that would be to erase us, his creatures. We often cause much of the pain and suffering around us. My friends, this is true and we can’t sugar-coat it. As an Episcopal priest once put it, “We may be Easter people, but we are not the darned Easter Bunny.”

Life is different now. The world seems to be destabilizing before our eyes. We wonder about the future.

Life is different now, but still we must love what is mortal. When we do that, we imitate God.

And we must be Easter people. Another poet, Jack Gilbert, wrote in 2005 what he called “A Brief for the Defense” in which he declared, in part:

“We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.”

And when it comes time to let it go, we must let it go, trusting that the resurrection is on-going. We must search with each other for the post-resurrection Jesus, the Christ, and serve him in whomever we meet. We must listen for him to call our name and then we must do the work he has given us to do – all the while proclaiming our Easter reality:

Alleluia! Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

 

— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg, D.D., is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service. Prior to joining ENS in the fall of 2005, she was curate and then assistant rector at Christ Church in Short Hills, N.J. She is priest associate at Christ Church in Shrewsbury, N.J. and lives in nearby Neptune. She worked for nearly 25 years as a journalist before becoming a priest.

Let our Savior’s voice speak, Easter Day (A) – 2011

April 24, 2011

Acts 10:34-43 or Jeremiah 31:1-6; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Colossians 3:1-4 or Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18 or Matthew 28:1-10

So. How do you feel? In the words of the Easter Vigil, “now that our Lenten observance is ended,” are you greeting with great joy and enthusiasm the Paschal mystery, or are you rejoicing that Lent is over and things can return to normal?

Yes, we are happy that we can now rejoice and put to rest our particular Lenten discipline of this year, but that shouldn’t really be the primary reason for our joy, should it? The life of great joy and freedom and peace should be our “new normal,” should it not? We are, this day, celebrating the most remarkable notion that humans have ever imagined: the great God, Creator of the Universe, has moved in time to change the rules.

Death, as much as it is a part of the cycle of life that governs the created order, has now been nullified. Death has been conquered not simply for a show of power and might, but for a show of love.

As John 3:16 reminds us: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” That is truly amazing. Positively dumbfounding. Wildly joyful.

In the words of the prophet Jeremiah, this is the time that “.you shall take your tambourines, and go forth in the dance of the merry makers.”

This is the day that our joy is uncontainable; that we begin to celebrate the new life that is ours in a particularly exuberant and outgoing way, for this begins the great season of Easter.

But one might find it curious that today’s collect is worded as it is:

“O God, who for our redemption gave your only-begotten
Son to the death of the cross, and by his glorious resurrection
delivered us from the power of our enemy: Grant us so to die
daily to sin, that we may evermore live with him in the joy of
his resurrection; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God,
now and for ever. Amen.”

References to sin and death and reminders of our need to die daily to sin don’t seem to be congruent with the joy of today. But the collect does point us to the reality of our earthly life: yes, we are an Easter people, a forgiven people, a people loved beyond measure; but we are also people who still must live in a world that is full of temptation and is fraught with peril. We live as a people with a vision that goes beyond this world, but that vision does not take us out of the world. That vision compels us back, more deeply into the world in the midst of all of its sin and death, to proclaim with the psalmist: “On this day the Lord has acted; we will rejoice and be glad in it.”

In looking at John’s report of the events surrounding the Resurrection of our Lord, we see the details of the reality of Mary Magdalene’s reaction. We see her distress, even though this is exactly what the twelve were told would happen – and we have no reason to believe that she did not know as well. We are made privy to her distress and the bewildering grief that she experienced. Some might even sigh at her disbelief and apparent lack of comprehension of the miracle to which she is a witness, but we see her very human emotions and can, in very real ways, understand her grief. Can’t you imagine Mary stumbling through the garden, her tears making it difficult for her to see, anguished sobs wracking her body? She looks into the tomb, hears the angels’ question. Incidentally, these angels were apparently not there when Peter and “the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved” entered the tomb. In her distress, she frantically answers that the body of her Lord has been taken, and then she turns around. With eyes swollen and flooded with tears, she is asked the same question and gives a similar answer. But then she hears His Voice; the voice she did not recognize before; the voice she did not understand until it speaks her name, and then she is free of the grief and begins to feel, the great joy that we are to feel this day – and indeed our entire lives.

Mary’s reaction to the news and the process through which she goes in realizing what has taken place is very similar to our process as we deal with the realities of our lives. We’ve heard the message of the gospel, we participate in the life of the church, we have an inkling of the promises that are ours through our relationship with Jesus, and we often lose our bearings and begin to despair. Ever-present sins, disappointments, and tragedies blind our sight and ability to see clearly the joy that is always ours. We cannot see through our tears, as we stumble from place to place and even miss the wonder of visits from angels who ask us why we are crying. We sob and wonder what could have possibly happened. We meet our Lord, but often don’t hear His Voice. We hear His words, but do not comprehend their meaning. We miss the possibility that it just might be true that the One for whom we are seeking, is the one standing right in front of us.

When we are in the middle of Lent, we find it hard to imagine Easter. Likewise, while we might intellectually understand the concept of resurrection, we can’t quite believe it in the face of death and loss. Even though we intellectually understand the concept of forgiveness, we can’t quite believe it in the midst of our sin and the sin around us. Even though Jesus tells us that He will never leave us nor forsake us, we can’t quite grasp and hold on to Jesus’ presence when we feel alone. It’s hard to remember the light when everything seems so dark.

And yet, when we hear His voice, when we are able to hear Him calling our names, it is then that we realize the truth of His word; it is then that we can lay hold to the promised joy, unspeakable. Yes, we live in a world so filled with noise that we can barely hear ourselves think. But our Savior’s voice has the kind of quality that cuts through the cacophony. It is not loud or overbearing. It is persistent and sweet – patiently repeating our names in a wonderful repetition of love and peace. This world seems so filled with much that would seem to be bent on drawing us away from that sweet voice. We constantly have to be reminded to make the effort, day in and day out, to pay attention and strain to hear the voice of Jesus.

Let this day be one that is filled with the sound of Jesus’ voice. Let our Savior’s voice speak through the words of scripture. Let our Savior’s voice sing through the notes of the music. Let our Savior’s voice call to us gently and increase our joy with the knowledge that all things have been accomplished and we are saved by Jesus’ sacrifice and are able to trust in the reality of the resurrection.

So, friends, if any of you are feeling weary from their Lenten journeys, please be encouraged on this day. Let your weariness, confusion, and doubt fall away, and if only for the balance of this day, rejoice and let your joy be known to all whom you meet. And if any need encouragement in this endeavor, remember the words of the old hymn:

“He speaks, and the sound of His Voice,
Is so sweet, the birds hush their singing.
And the melody that He gives to me,
Within my heart is ringing.
And He walks with me
And He talks with me
And He tells me I am His own.
And the joy we share, as we tarry there,
None other, has ever known.”

 

— The Rev. Lawrence Womack is rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Winston-Salem, N.C.